The Godfather

He's brilliant, bungling, rich, and wields extraordinary power. Derry Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, may not like talking about himself, but to friends and enemies he is fascinating
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The Independent Culture
IN THE gloom of a November day one year ago, three officials from the Lord Chancellor's Department converged upon the stately office of Lord Irvine of Lairg at the House of Lords. The subject of the meeting was the performance of Sheila Thompson, the department's able and long- serving head of information. She was accompanied by Sir Thomas Legg, her Permanent Secretary, whose retirement had been delayed to give the new Lord Chancellor time to settle in after the election, and by the department's policy director, Ian Burns. Sir Thomas had warned Thompson to expect a brutal occasion.

Irvine spent 20 minutes laying out the charge sheet, suggesting that he had not been well served in the previous months, as the press ridiculed him for comparing himself with Cardinal Wolsey, failed to pay due attention to the achievements of the Human Rights Bill and took its first nibble at the now infamous affair of his refurbished apartment in the House of Lords. Irvine had been especially upset by a Sunday Times profile which not only itemised in some detail the pounds 650,000 decorator's bill, but accused the "brilliant, brutal and powerful" Lord Chancellor of having run his chambers "with dictatorial style" and reported the view of an un-named member of Tony Blair's election campaign staff that Lord Irvine is "pompous and arrogant".

Thompson replied to the charges, pointing out that the Human Rights Bill was a Home Office Bill and not her direct responsibility, that Lord Irvine had not shown her the Wolsey speech in advance and that, moreover, he had personally thrust a copy of it into the hands of a reporter from the Times. She also suggested (not for the first time) that Irvine needed a political adviser, free to convey his political messages and to supplement the work of his department's press office. Legg then muttered about the necessary boundaries between political and departmental public relations, before Burns chipped in to make the case for more money. Within weeks, Thompson's job was advertised at a higher grade, she was told she need not apply for it and she left - for a well-paid job in the private sector, one of half a dozen Whitehall public relations chiefs who failed to get on with their New Labour political masters.

Irvine certainly had cause to worry about his image. A few weeks after the November interrogation, a Sunday Times editorial commented upon "Lord Irvine's accelerating self-destruction" and urged the prime minister to dump "a man whose political naivety and pompous self-importance have become an embarrassment". No cabinet min- ister in Tony Blair's Government has received such a thrashing before or since. And it did not stop there: no sooner had the wallpaper hullabaloo started to calm down than he was being told to get his tanks off the press's lawn, following an interview in the New Statesman when he said that the Press Complaints Commission should strengthen its machinery to protect privacy, possibly by fining newspapers or even by restraining them from publication. This intervention not only enraged the leader writers, but produced a public rebuttal from Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's press spokesman, and then, by telephone, a rebuke from the Prime Minister himself. "He was shaken," said a member of his staff at the time.

By spring of this year, there was a Private Member's Bill to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor and an Early Day Motion signed by 103 Labour backbenchers driving at essentially the same point. Sheila Thompson, who at an earlier stage had asked Campbell's advice about a press strategy for the Lord Chancellor (known in the less deferential parts of Labour HQ as "old melonhead"), began to think that the former Daily Mirror man might have got it right when he replied: "It consists of just two words. Shut up."

To be fair to Lord Irvine, he has never exactly courted publicity. He gives few press conferences and turns down most requests for interviews. Given his pre-eminence in the Blair entourage - ranking in the top four alongside Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Gordon Brown - that makes trying to read him a particularly engaging challenge. Who is this rich commercial lawyer, who hired both Tony and Cherie Blair as his pupils, who in his early thirties ran off with another man's wife (Alison, then wife of Donald Dewar who is now Scottish Secretary) and who is steering through the most ambitious set of constitutional reforms for a century? How could one man achieve such closeness of relationship not only with Blair (to whose son, Nicky, Irvine is godfather, and at whose wedding he proposed the toast) but also with the late John Smith, his pal since their Glasgow University days, and to Neil Kinnock, who put him in the House of Lords in 1987 for in-valuable services rendered? How could one so clever commit such elementary bungles? How could such a bungler be the most power-ful and ambitious Lord Chancellor since the war? Above all, is this Lord Chancellor a good thing, someone upon whose judgement, independence and liberal instinct we can rely when the going gets rough between the judges and the government, as it did when Michael Howard was Home Secretary and John Major Prime Minister, and as it surely will do again, some unforeseeable day?

Lord Irvine was born Alexander Andrew Mackay Irvine on 23 June 1940, the only child of an Inverness roofer and a waitress. His maternal grandfather was the fount of the family's socialism, tutored by the Daily Herald and politically hardened when his bridge-building business in Lairg, Sutherland, collapsed, forcing a move to Inverness. There the family lived in a large council house and Irvine's grand- father took a job as clerk of works with the town council, becoming an abiding influence upon young Derry.

Grammar school and Glasgow University (with a Labour Club that included John Smith and Donald Dewar) were followed by starred brilliance at Cambridge and a period lecturing at the London School of Economics, where he became politically active for the first time, contesting Hendon North in 1970 and preparing for his move towards the Bar. His first marriage to Margaret Veitch, a butcher's daughter, gave way to his passion for Alison, a shrewd, funny and warm woman who, says a friend, is "well capable of running the three children in her home: Derry and their two sons, David and Alastair".

Irvine's career prospered. In 1981, he broke away from the chambers where he had learnt the basics, along with nine colleagues, to start a new business at 11 King's Bench Walk - the board outside still lists Mr Anthony Blair. What Irvine spotted was the opportunity available to those who both specialised and gained high reputation; he and his partners chose three areas - employment, commercial and public law. Their managerial style was to grow young talent from within - an exercise in which the chambers has been outstandingly successful, producing what Irvine has called "a very homogeneous group of friends".

Irvine is a heftily built man, not tall or fat, but with a rubbery, bulging face and dark, bushy eyebrows which have an alarming tendency to point in opposite directions like signposts in a moorland storm. Although he can look fierce, at other moments you can see the boy in him. He is simultaneously grand and someone playing at being grand. There is no parliamentary sight more awkward than Lord Irvine walking backwards from the throne at the state opening of Parliament. Although often described as pompous, speaking in scripted phrases, savouring his own intelligence, he also has a sense of irony and is liked by an impressively unpredictable range of people.

Those who have been Irvine's clients, who have briefed him or faced him across the courtroom describe someone who is clever, quick and hugely forceful, even bull-headed. Some who have worked beneath him look up and see a bully. In a glossy portrait for Legal Business magazine just before last year's general election, the author noted that "the chambers has not achieved its success by being a bunch of hand-wringing socialists ... it has got to the top through its hard-nosed acceptance of the financial realities of life, with the chambers' clerks having no compunction about charging top whack for their barristers." To Lord Irvine, lawyers are business people.

Top whack means a pounds 20,000 fee for a five-day hearing and estimated annual earnings for Irvine in his private sector heyday in excess of pounds 500,000 - an income which has enabled him to develop in some style his and his wife's main interest, a fine collection of paintings. These are displayed in their two homes, in Kilburn, north London, and at West Loch Tarbert, on the Kintyre peninsula in Argyll, which dangles from the west coast of Scotland just north of Belfast. Although Lord and Lady Irvine have recently moved to the refurbished apartments in the Palace of Westminster, their two sons and the family dog, Saskya, remain in Kilburn.

Irvine's legal world is one where you make money rather than a reputation for landmark cases, though his personal record does include some such highlights, such as the case he won in the House of Lords as a young silk where the right of a Sikh pupil to wear his turban to school was at stake. But at work he has never worn his politics on his sleeve; people who have worked with him say they know nothing of what drives the man politically.

"When I was with him, which was often, the favoured topics of conversation over lunch were the location of the best butcher in London or the quality of various Bordeaux vintages," says one solicitor. "He's very jocular, very good company, but really comes across as someone who doesn't actually take anything all that seriously. As for his values, it's very hard to know what he thinks. In some ways I think he doesn't know himself. He comes from a poor background and he lives the high life of the art connoisseur. It's very hard to discern any socialist philosophy in the man."

Other lawyers, of a more unforgivingly leftish persuasion, point out icily that Irvine and his chambers were not noted for taking on poor clients or pro bono work, though it is difficult for outsiders to make a reliable judgement on this. More to the point, such critics miss the fact that in the early 1980s, with Margaret Thatcher in full cry, Derry Irvine not only found time to build a business from scratch, but to develop a set of political relationships which have been crucial to his own advancement and to the shape of the modern Labour Party.

It was in this period that John Smith, who had served as a junior minister in James Callaghan's Government, suggested that Neil Kinnock, the party leader, seek legal advice beyond the official machinery of the Labour Party, namely from Derry Irvine. As Kinnock took on the Militant Tendency, Irvine became indispensable.

"He was absolutely brilliant. When you have a dilemma, Derry gets right to the heart of it, with no flannel, and if someone is concealing anxieties he is able to get these things out into the open. When others would wring their hands, Derry was there as the man of action. Through sheer will- power, he gave people confidence they could do it," says Neil Stewart, political secretary to Kinnock at the time.

It was Irvine who argued that the Labour Party could insist, within the law, that it had the right to set its own rules and act upon them, and who devised the terms under which a modernising Labour leadership would drive out its Trotskyite fringe for "bringing the party into disrepute". According to Stewart, "He just said: 'If you want to do it, you can do it and the courts will uphold your right to do it. The judiciary would always be reluctant to interfere in the affairs of a voluntary organisation like the Labour Party.'"

As the set-piece battles against Militant evolved into a full-blown overhaul of the Labour Party's constitution, Irvine was there again, helping the leadership to think clearly, to ensure that it controlled the crucial gateways in terms of shortlists of candidates and so could enforce its chosen standards of loyalty to party principle. It was Irvine who ensured that the revised constitution mentioned the idea of a National Policy Forum, even though the leadership at the time was not enthusiastic. It has since been picked up by Blair to transform the party's policy-making machinery. "Derry was available to us at any time of day or night, giving advice or setting in process a course to deal with the situation. I have no doubt that if Labour had won under Kinnock, Derry would have been Lord Chancellor," says Stewart.

Irvine was also the brains behind Labour's re-formulation of its crucial relationship with the unions. During the 1988-89 policy review, for example, as Kinnock prepared to fight the election he would eventually lose to John Major, his staff set up an alternative review team on industrial relations issues, to shadow the one led by the left-wing employment spokesman, Michael Meacher. That alternative team included Charles Clarke, Kinnock's chief of staff and now a junior minister in the department of education and employment, and John Monks, then assistant general secretary at the TUC. When in 1989 Tony Blair took over from Meacher as Shadow Employment Secretary, the intellectual ground was thus well prepared for him to launch the process of accommodating the party to most of Thatcher's changes in employment law. It was in this job that Blair first made his mark.

There were other ways too in which Irvine's political and legal worlds overlapped in the 1980s, helping to place him at the centre of the political and social network which now runs the country. One example arose from the struggle over a magnificent waterfront site next to the Greater London Council's County Hall headquarters. This brought into conflict the Coin Street Community Builders, who wanted to build social housing, and a group of developers, who wanted to build a Richard Rogers-designed palace of offices, shops and cultural facilities. The solicitors for the developers were Herbert Smith, one of the big six City law firms, and the case was in the hands of Garry Hart, a solicitor who had got to know the Blairs when his wife was at the London School of Economics. With the developers on the ropes in a turbulent planning conflict, Tony Blair recommended that Hart hire Irvine, who took the brief on their behalf. Today Hart is employed inside the Lord Chancellor's Department as a special adviser to Irvine, having taken the precaution of joining the Labour Party just before the last election.

The emergence of this group of lawyers, with Irvine at its apex, is a little noticed phenomenon, but one richly informative about the style and character of New Labour. These are people whose roots are in the party's Gaitskellite right wing - a label Irvine agrees fitted him squarely as a young man, though he summarises his political ideas today as "practically identical" to those of the late John Smith. This network of new Labour lawyers is affluent, tactically smart and good at arguing a case, though sometimes, as is the way with lawyers, less good at convincing you that the case means anything to them personally. Before the election, Irvine wrote letters to this group and its many associates, asking for money for Blair's campaign. Garry Hart is listed among Labour's high value donors in the party's latest annual report.

Another critical link in this network is Lord Falconer, a 46-year-old QC some see supplanting Lord Irvine eventually or at the very least providing Blair with an alternative, legally trained personal adviser. Falconer, who is as amiable and relaxed as Irvine is awkward under pressure, met Blair when both were at neighbouring public schools in Scotland, shared a flat in Wandsworth with him when both were young lawyers and today lives a few doors from Garry Hart in Islington. Falconer was promoted by Blair at the last re-shuffle to Peter Mandelson's old job, oiling the wheels of government action in the Cabinet Office, having been Solicitor-General immediately after the election. Before that, Blair had prevailed upon Falconer - Charlie to his friends - to pitch for a Westminster seat, but the local party in Dudley North had other ideas, not least because they objected to the fact that his four children are all being privately educated. This educational divide may limit the political advance of the Blairite lawyers' network, since no elected member of the Blair cabinet has taken the risk of seeking private education for his or her children. Lord Irvine's two sons, David and Alastair, both attended the fee-paying City of London school, though for some reason newspaper cuttings say otherwise. Hart too has his children in private schools.

This does not alter the fact that since Blair became leader of the party in 1994, Irvine's personal role has been seminal. In the approach to the election, the two were in daily contact. Along with David Miliband, head of Blair's policy unit, Irvine wrote the final draft of the manifesto and, with Roger Liddle, another policy unit man, he dress- rehearsed Blair for his television interviews. "Liddle did the economics and Derry the politics," says one who witnessed the process. "No TV interviewer came close to Derry's ferocity and skill."

After the election, Blair signalled the extent to which he would rely upon his Lord Chancellor by giving him the chairmanship of five Cabinet Committees and membership of another five. He runs most of the constitutional committees and until July chaired the Queen' s Speech and future legislative programme committee. That was lost to Margaret Beckett in the July re- shuffle - a sweetener for her demotion from the Trade and Industry job and, Irvine's enemies hope, the first indication of a slackening of Irvine's hold over Blair. However, Irvine also provides more discreet services, for example advising Blair throughout the Bernie Ecclestone affair.

It cannot be denied that Lord Irvine has pursued this wide array of roles with formidable energy, rising daily at 5.30am to start work in his office at 6.30, giving him mornings of papers and meetings, with the afternoon and evening free for his duties in the House of Lords, of which he is speaker. Even those who do not like him admire his effectiveness as a committee chairman and those who are undismayed by his boisterous, haughty manner go much further than that. "He's easily the most impressive performer among ministers and officials," says one regular attender at these meetings.

When I met him in his office last week and asked him to appraise his first 18 months in office, he pointed to the devolution programme, achieved on time; to the Human Rights Bill, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights into British law; and to his ongoing work on reforming the House of Lords and chairing the committee which oversees the Home Office bill on Freedom of Information. These, he says, without exaggeration, "are achievements unprecedented this century". He also remains adamant that his proposed reform of legal aid, including the development of a cut-price community legal service, will fulfil his other central objective of "giving ordinary people effective access to justice".

There are signs, however, that this impressive momentum may have peaked. The draft Freedom of Information Bill will not now be ready until January or February, though campaigners are convinced that it would be further delayed and less radical if Irvine were not there to steer the process. At a Campaign for Freedom of Information fringe meeting at Labour's conference in Blackpool earlier this month, Irvine's name was toasted by veterans of this long struggle who see him as the man to stand up for their cause against Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, and perhaps even to Blair himself. Irvine says simply that the measure will be enacted "in the lifetime of this parliament" but that it is necessary to consider in detail "the particular needs of our security services, of our special forces, of law enforcement and of the criminal prosecution process". Although Straw, the redbrick law degree man and populist former student rabble-rouser, and Irvine, the starred first from Cambridge, flew at each other's throats in the first six months of the new Government, Irvine denies they differ on Freedom of Information, though no one who follows the subject closely believes this.

Then there is the House of Lords. When I interviewed Irvine in February of this year, he spoke about the importance of "linkages" in constitutional reform and of the need to think through the whole process of reforming the upper house. Now he sticks to the more restrictive manifesto formulation, that the voting rights of hereditary peers will be removed, and refuses to discuss the surely related question of the voting system used to elect MPs - the subject of a report expected shortly from Lord (Roy) Jenkins. Jenkins, incidentally, was one of Lord and Lady Irvine's house guests in Argyll in August; this points to a significant friendship which has not been much noticed, though there was a small public manifestation of it when Jenkins wrote to the Times defending the Lord Chancellor over his wallpapering. Presumably, the two noble Lords took the opportunity to discuss proportional representation as they strolled the hills? "He spent three or four happy days with his wife with us but believe it or not we did not exchange a word about electoral reform," says Lord Irvine.

Improbable, perhaps, but consistent with other reports of Irvine' s lairdly style. House guests say that he pads down the stairs at 4am to be at his red boxes, but that by the time guests are mooching around the breakfast table, he is ready to go "marching" around the countryside. "He's full of mischief and humour," says one guest, "but you get the impression that he's happiest glazing the ham and uncorking the wine. It's not an occasion for great seriousness and you're just as likely to find yourself sitting next to someone he met driving through the village as a famous lawyer, politician or artist. Alison is the one who holds it together, socially."

There is one constitutional question, however, which Lord Irvine considers out of bounds - namely any challenge to the powers of his own office. And it is here that he may have serious enemies stalking in the long grass.

It is hardly a new thought that Lord Chancellors have too much power - Alan Watkins, like Irvine a Garrick Club man and one with a soft spot for him, has described him as "a walking refutation of the separation of powers", combining the roles of senior cabinet minister, Speaker of the House of Lords and head of the judiciary. Irvine's defence of this position is well known, that the office "operates at a cusp in the constitution where the executive and judiciary meet. The principal function I have to serve is to ensure that the executive communicates effectively with the judiciary and the judiciary with the executive, so that there is no breakdown in mutual acrimony."

Many Labour back benchers think that there should be a Minister for Justice who is an elected politician, not a bewigged Lord.There are anxieties too among the Law Lords - in a sense the Lord Chancellor's peers, those with whom he sits, when he has time, to hear legal argument in the nation's supreme court of law.

"The unhappy reference to Cardinal Wolsey was not altogether inaccurate," says one Law Lord. "Not since Victorian times has any Lord Chancellor sought to take such political power. From a legal point of view, the Lord Chancellorship is required to ensure the separation of powers. Lord Irvine has rendered that totally meaningless."

The danger, according to this analysis, is that the Lord Chancellor may be too bound into the collective programme of the government of the day to stand up for the eternal independence of the courts, not least in the grim practicality of ensuring that they have the money to dispense justice in a timely and efficient fashion. Like his predecessor Lord Mackay, Irvine is considered a push-over for the Treasury and critics see his legal aid reforms as a blundering attack upon a section of the legal profession he does not understand.

Perhaps more serious, and certainly with less taint of special pleading, is the argument that when this Government gets into conflict over judicial review of controversial ministerial decisions, as the last Government did on a spectacular scale in its closing years, there is a danger that Lord Irvine will react by abusing his sole power to appoint judges or in other ways. One possible source of conflict could be the perpetuation by ministers of non-judicial sentencing, of the kind used to keep Myra Hindley in jail or to lengthen the sentences of the boys who killed James Bulger. This is a populist government too - where will Lord Irvine stand when these matters arise? It is a subject he refuses to discuss.

Irvine, however, waves the general critique aside as lacking substance. I put it to him that even in his own recent public statements, the problem looks real enough. For example, he has just returned from Hong Kong, where he gave a speech to the legal establishment, unreported in this country, in which he discussed the importance of the separation of powers, quoting the French Declaration of the Rights of Man that "any society in which ... the separation of powers is not observed has no constitution."

But in developing his case that the judiciary must accept its necessary subservience to Parliament, he went on to urge the courts "to exercise self-restraint" in judicial review and chose a startling example: that of the judicial review in 1995 of the decision by the Thatcher Government to provide funds for the Pergau Dam in Malaysia "for the purpose of promoting the development" of that country. Critics argued that the funding was, essentially, a way of boosting favoured British firms' business, with uncertain effects upon Malaysia's economy and environment. To the fury of Margaret Thatcher, the court ruled that the grant was unlawful in that it did not involve "sound development". Lord Irvine told his Hong Kong audience that "it is this type of judicial activism which begins to blur the boundary between appeal and review, thereby undermining the constitutional foundations on which the courts' supervisory jurisdiction rests."

This week Lord Irvine seemed surprised that I read these remarks as an indication of how the combined weight of his powers might be used to apply pressure to judges, replying that in making this particular speech, "I was wearing my legal hat. I was using that as an example - the only modern example I could think of - where arguably the judges had gone further than was legitimate in construing a statute and therefore substituting their judgments for the judgment of the executive. I was parading my purism by criticising a decision of the courts which was hostile to the outgoing Government." He would not, he added, offer such a view if a similar case were to arise during his tenure as Lord Chancellor - as opposed to discussing a historic case.

Those who know Lord Irvine well say that he is very unlikely indeed to court disfavour among the judges or the legal profession, not least because despite his appearance of overwhelming self-confidence he is aware of the limited range of his own legal experience. Because of his heavy workload, he has sat in judgment as a Law Lord only once and once in Privy Council, and is reported by those who witnessed the events to have been "pretty diffident" - perhaps reflecting his lack of experience as a judge, or even of criminal matters. Those who have been verbally pummelled by Irvine in court or in cabinet committee would probably pay a week's salary to witness him in diffident mode.

Others note that although he set out breathing fire and brimstone about reining in the fat cat legal aid lawyers and bouncing them into an American- style conditional fee (no win/no fee) system, his plans are being significantly re-shaped following consultation - leading to a revised charge, that the reforms will not achieve worthwhile savings and so are not themselves worthwhile. Lord Irvine's response to this is to agree that there will be no financial savings, but that "the budget will be refocused in the direction of greatest need." He will set out his detailed thoughts on his proposed community-based legal service shortly.

This moderation of tone and a sense that he needs to build a constituency for his reforms is credited by many observers to the more emollient style of Garry Hart. "It must be him who has been reading Derry's speeches and taking out the more pompous passages. He's also started making self-deprecating remarks and jokes about Wolsey. They're not good jokes, but it' s a start," says one legal journalist.

Whether Lord Irvine can learn to love the media is, however, another matter. Intensely sensitive to criticism, he has struggled to find the right language to talk to journalists and, as a result, struggles to find a convincing register with the people journalists serve - namely the general public. Among his early conflicts with his press adviser Sheila Thompson was his refusal to sit at the same table as legal journalists when briefing them - something he said he had been advised upon by Alastair Campbell, which would be odd, since the Prime Minister briefs everybody from a sofa, if not from a garden chair. What Irvine should do is to relax and be himself in public - but that is not advice likely to appeal to those in Downing Street paid to deliver still waters.

He is also, as you might expect of a lawyer, quick to sound litigious. The first invitation to a briefing for legal correspondents was accompanied by a written note, laying down restrictions on the questions that would be entertained, and his lengthy screeds of complaint to editors have chiefly been regarded as comic. He was consistently advised against this type of reaction not only by Thompson, but also by Geoff Hoon, his junior minister, and Tony Wright, the clever New Labour MP who was appointed Irvine's Parliamentary Private Secretary after the election, but who quietly slipped out of the job a couple of weeks ago a frustrated man, having been blocked from combining the role of special adviser and PPS originally intended. Wright also got into trouble with Irvine when, taking advantage of a "freedom to speak" clause agreed at the time of his appointment, he took a swipe at the flummery of the monarchy and the rules for ministers taking their spouses on trips abroad - this latter intervention sensitively timed in that Lord and Lady Irvine had just returned from a trip to the Caribbean.

"The thing about Derry is that he says what he thinks and doesn't trim the advice he gives," says Lord Falconer. "But he does want very much to be a great Lord Chancellor, responsible for a major constitutional re-settlement and a genuine reform of the justice system."

As for his values, what do those who know him believe them to be? Many scratch their heads as if the subject had never cropped up in 30 years of friendship or acquaintance. "Derry's politics are to be loyal to the leader of the Labour Party," says one. "He's essentially a brilliant technician," says another, "not a philosopher or someone with great political imagination." Charlie Falconer speaks of Irvine's "very strong sense of left-wing values, very much part of the left-liberal consensus". When I asked Lord Irvine whether he thinks of himself as a socialist, there was a full 12-second pause before he replied: "I attach very little importance to labels but to the extent that it has a contemporary meaning, not in the Marxist Leninist sense, but in the British tradition, then yes. I think that New Labour is a natural development of socialist tradition." His political motivation is, he says, "to make the lives of ordinary people better". He has never attended the Labour Party conference.

What about religion? John Smith, like Tony Blair, was very much a Christian Socialist. Is Lord Irvine a religious man? Another pause and he replies: "I will describe facts and not offer opinions. I had a perfect attendance at Bible class in the Church of Scotland until the age of 16. I was a member of the Boys' Brigade until the age of 17. I am therefore imbued with Christian values and that's all I want to say." He adds that he and his wife attend church in Scotland, but not in London.

The truth is that this most loquacious of men doesn't like talking about himself. He is no more a real politician than he is a Christian evangelist. He has two preferred domains: rehearsed public argument and relaxed private comfort. In that private domain, he likes to play the genial host to the point where his appetite for both food and wine are the subject of gossip and comment. One story, which has taken on the status of an upmarket urban myth, has Irvine dining at the Garrick with a legal chum. They enjoy themselves so warmly that, having consumed lamb cutlets and a quantity of claret, Irvine demands of the waiter what is taking the lamb cutlets so long. Whereupon a second plateful is delivered and consumed. The difference between this urban myth and the one about the newt that was flushed into the New York sewers and turned into a baby-devouring dinosaur is that it is true. Lord Irvine's companion that evening was Garry Hart, though the incident did occur some years ago.

The Irvine paradox is that he is a man of Stakhanovite working habits with a prodigious taste for a certain kind of fun. He can be a bully or a beast, or the best company in the world. Raised in the boozy, self-satisfied and rather private culture of the Bar, he struggles to keep his balance in the demotic world of politics and the media - a tartan Coriolanus unwilling to show his wounds to the mob. But there is surely no reason to doubt the sincerity of his political convictions merely because he cannot whisper them with a glycerine tear into a television camera.

The paradox, however, causes strain, not least upon his family, which has the effect of making Irvine even more angry with the press and backbench agitators. One friend says that in a bleak moment of maximum media adversity Irvine has spoken of quitting the job, but when I ask him whether he can imagine holding such a demanding post for a decade, he replies: "If the Prime Minister wants me to and God willing, the answer is enthusiastically yes. Why stop at 10 years?"

Should he get that far his contribution will be serious and his epitaph not unlike the one Irvine himself bestowed upon John Smith at the Labour leader's funeral. "He was then what he remained: a Highlander and so, to a degree, a romantic; a Presbyterian, not a Puritan, reared in the Church of Scotland; and a Labour Party family man. He was driven by a set of moral imperatives which owed everything to his inherited conscience."

Ian Hargreaves is Professor of Journalism at Cardiff University and a former editor of the 'New Statesman'