Lord Falconer: The Scapegoat Zone

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Lord Falconer had a pretty shrewd idea that the Dome could be trouble for him on that fateful day he was given responsibility for it after Peter Mandelson resigned in December 1998. He told friends wryly how he had noticed that, as the day wore on, the one-word caption on the picture of him behind the BBC newsreader changed with each bulletin. During the lunchtime news it said "Dome". At 6pm it read "Supremo". At 9pm it read, ominously, "Crony".

Lord Falconer had a pretty shrewd idea that the Dome could be trouble for him on that fateful day he was given responsibility for it after Peter Mandelson resigned in December 1998. He told friends wryly how he had noticed that, as the day wore on, the one-word caption on the picture of him behind the BBC newsreader changed with each bulletin. During the lunchtime news it said "Dome". At 6pm it read "Supremo". At 9pm it read, ominously, "Crony".

This was neverthless only the mildest foretaste of what, by any standards, has been the worst week this mild-mannered, hitherto notably low-profile, minister has faced since coming into government. He cannot have expected to wake up to screaming tabloid headlines ordering him to resign. He cannot have expected to have to meet every round-the-clock demand to defend the stricken Dome on television and radio. Or that his soft Edinburgh burr would become known in pretty well every household in the land.

He hasn't panicked. And he hasn't lost his cool or characteristic politeness to interviewers. But in a media age in which every big, bad, political story needs a scapegoat to be humiliated, it has been inevitable that his qualities as a politician should be continually assessed. Never mind that many of the most crucial decisions were taken before the Dome was handed to him. The question all week has been - apart from whether he should resign - was he the right man for the job? Is he an "endearing amateur" as the Labour MP Martin O'Neill described him?

To answer these questions, it is necessary to go back to the beginning. Like his friend Tony Blair, Charles Leslie Falconer chose the Labour Party rather than being born into it. But he was born into the law. His great-grandfather had been a Church of Scotland minister; but his father - like his father before him - was an Edinburgh solicitor whose politics had tended to shift rather as did those of Scotland itself in the period after the War. Grandfather Falconer had been an independent councillor who became Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Charles's father John had been a Liberal in his youth, and in the Fifties and Sixties was a Conservative. But after Margaret Thatcher's accession to the leadership in 1975 made Toryism socially unacceptable to bien pensant Scots, he drifted away from the party. John Falconer was closely involved in local hospital boards - an active citizen rather than a political one.

But there were politicians in the background. That distinguished Scottish barrister, the late John Smith, lived two doors away in Edinburgh's Cluny Drive. The Falconers knew the Smiths well - both professionally and socially. In 1970 Smith, then a new MP, made a forcible impression on the 19-year-old Charles when his father, down for a case in the House of Lords, asked Smith to take his son round the Commons. Falconer was always struck by how John Smith managed to be as much at ease in refined Morningside as among trade unionists or rank-and-file Labour supporters - a gift which, for all the relentless attempts this week to depict him as a fat-cat, out-of-touch, ermine-bedecked peer, Falconer appears to share.

Like Blair, who went to Fettes, Falconer went to a Scottish public school, Glenalmond, and was still there when he met Blair, then in his last year at school. The friendship did not start well, since, not to put too fine a point on it, Falconer pinched the future prime minister's girlfriend.

Falconer met Blair through Amanda Mackenzie-Stuart, whose - also legal - family knew the Falconers, and who was the first girl at Fettes. Of all the 440 boys at Fettes it was Blair's good fortune to start - rather discreetly - dating her. John Rentoul will reveal in a new edition of his biography of the Prime Minister that Blair went to a party only to see her arrive on Charles Falconer's arm. He was not, to put it mildly, pleased. And although Blair and Falconer - who had already acquired his encyclopaedic knowledge of Sixties rock and pop - met occasionally during the Seventies, it was more by accident than design.

As it happened, Amanda Mackenzie-Stuart - now Hay - subsequently dumped Falconer for someone else. Happily married and an independent film producer, she remains on friendly terms with both men. This week she was to find Sunday newspaper journalists camped once again outside her front door in Oxford. This has happened regularly before, of course. The only difference was that this time it was because of her association with Falconer and not with Blair. Ms Hay has been discretion itself about her former boyfriends, confining herself to the remark in 1998 that she was pleased and "a bit surprised" that both men had done so well. "I wouldn't have said either of them was very ambitious when I knew them."

After this false start, the Blair friendship with Falconer did not begin properly until 1976 when the two men bumped into each other on a Temple staircase where they were young lawyers in adjoining chambers.

Blair had been at Oxford, Falconer at Queen's College Cambridge, where he read history and law. Falconer had expected to follow his father into the family practice. But his father was still in his forties and at the peak of his powers; instead of becoming a Scottish solicitor, he became an English barrister. John Smith's guided tour may have sown the seeds of a fairly vague political aspiration on Falconer's part. But the Cambridge he arrived at in 1970 was in left-wing ferment. It was seen as unacceptably careerist to join the Labour Party so he didn't join until he went to live in Wandsworth in the late Seventies.

It was in 1979 that Tony Blair came to live in the smallish house Falconer had bought at Bramford Road, Wandsworth. It was hardly the high-octane, sexually charged, young barristers' household that was depicted almost two decades later in This Life. Indeed, asked by Nyta Mann in a BBC Online interview whether it more closely resembled the carefree squalor of Withnail and I or the student anarchy of The Young Ones, Falconer, who had a reputation forheroic untidiness as a young barrister, unguardedly plumped for the latter, jokily, if inaccurately, casting himself as the "Rik Mayall character who was a fan of Cliff Richard".

The housemates were both active in the Labour Party - though Falconer was probably more identifiably on the right than Blair, never (unlike Blair) even flirting with CND. (He is still somewhat to the right. Baroness Jay has been heard to refer to him as "the mill owner" in Lords ministerial social policy meetings.)

Blair and Falconer both shared, however, a marked disillusionment with the Callaghan government. Falconer described to Rentoul how in 1979 the new local MP, Alf Dubs, reported that he had described his interests to Callaghan, who had replied: "Oh God, another immigration and inner-city issues man. What we really want is someone interested in agricultural issues." As Falconer put it (long before he met and came to like the former prime minister), "We all laughed, thinking what a dreadful figure Callaghan was".

Through the 1980s Falconer built a formidable reputation, first as an employment, and then as a more broadly commercial, lawyer. It's no secret that much of his legal work wasn't exactly left-friendly; he appeared for BNFL in disputes with leukaemia victims and for the National Coal Board in a series of complicated and ground- breaking cases against Arthur Scargill's striking National Union of Mineworkers. By the time he took a government job in 1997 (at a mere £80,000 a year) his salary was probably around £500,000.

While his ever closer friend Tony Blair had increasingly focused on a political career, Falconer had largely subordinated politics to the bar - though he several times did extra-curricular work for the party. After Falconer married another successful barrister, the "pre-Raphaelite beauty" and diplomat's daughter Marianna Hildyard, the couple's now Islington-based social life was increasingly intertwined with that of the Blairs. The Falconer children overlap in age with the Blairs', and the four parents dined together frequently.

Even before he became leader Blair had wanted to see more people join parliament who had been successes elsewhere. After he became leader in 1994, Blair was also conscious that he would need at least one talented new government law officer. It was therefore natural that he should encourage Falconer to become an MP. When, during the sudden-death selection of new candidates just before the 1997 election, John Gilbert obligingly agreed to take a peerage, Blair hoped that he would get Dudley West. Falconer took Blair's advice to consult Mo Mowlam before appearing before the NEC panel that made the pre-election selections. But it was a miserable experience.

Towards the end of the interview one of the panel's key members, the shrewd and experienced Ian McCartney, went on a fishing expedition and asked Falconer about education. McCartney, who saw his role as being to ask the tricky questions, had, in an apparent lapse of staff work by the leader's office, no idea that Falconer's children were all at private schools (the three boys were at the fashionable The Hall prep school in Hampstead). So when Falconer volunteered the fact, there was a frisson of shock among the panellists. McCartney complimented him on his honesty but asked whether, if state education was improved as Labour hoped it would be, he might reconsider his children's schooling. Falconer said he could certainly not guarantee such a thing. He would, he added, do what was in the best interests of his children. He didn't get on the short list.

Falconer deeply regretted his failure. Several of his colleagues say he has a very clear idea of the handicap it is to be in the Lords, rather than an elected minister. Nevertheless, his appetite for politics now fully reawakened, he didn't hesitate when after the 1997 election Tony Blair offered him the job of Solicitor-General anyway.

When Falconer took over as Cabinet Office minister of state in July 1998, inheriting Mandelson's membership of most key cabinet committees, he brought with him a more emollient, less edgy style. But there was no doubt that his brief was similar - to act as the PM's eyes, ears and be a trouble-shooter across Whitehall. Much more than a courtier, Falconer is part of the Blair family. He is a social animal and doesn't suffer from the Cromwellian PC-ness so prevalent in New Labour. He will take a glass of wine at lunchtime, he plays some tennis. Along with Peter Mandelson - sometimes - he is the only minister to attend the Downing Street planning meetings on Monday mornings.

Blair will resist the clamour for his head. He not only trusts him completely, but believes he has a future. If he weathers the current storm, he could conceivably become Lord Chancellor if and when Lord Irvine stands down - though the Attorney Lord (Gareth) Williams would also be a strong candidate. Or he could conceivably be a kind of Chief Secretary in a revamped prime ministerial department after the election. Either way, he is an asset to Blair because other colleagues regard him as a straight dealer. He is as unlucky to be holding the Dome Baby as Mandelson is lucky to have relinquished it. And the purgatory is not over yet. As he contemplates the media onslaught this weekend, he must be asking himself, in the words of the title of an Ace Record - one of his all time top-five favourites - "How long?"