The Sketch: Funny handshakes and funnier wigs on the agenda

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The Independent Online
THE LORD CHANCELLOR has made plain for some time that he would dearly like to "in" himself. As the only member of the Cabinet who is actually required to drag up for a day at work, complete with tights, full-length wig and a fetching pair of Emma Hope buckle shoes, he has been feeling increasingly uncomfortable of late, a man forced to subdue his bodily urges to the stifling conventions of a more strait-laced time.

He no longer wants to live a lie. He's not an 18th-century merchant. He feels comfortable in suits. But Tory traditionalists have reacted with something close to revulsion at his suggestion that he reveal his true nature and are absolutely adamant that parliamentary decency won't be outraged in this way. Such is their indignation that it isn't entirely inconceivable that they will insist that he also wear rouge and a large beauty spot when they vote on the matter next week. The sans-toupees are at the gate and must be dealt with firmly.

In the meantime, Lord Irvine restates his case with resigned modesty. Yes, he confirmed yesterday to the Home Affairs Committee, he did feel that "for male adults of sound mind ... the days of breeches and tights and buckled shoes have passed". He had no objection to full costume on some occasions. When ceremony demanded it, he was prepared to perch on the woolsack in "full kit", like a mischievous boy consigned to the naughty cushion. In such circumstances he would buckle down, buckle up, buckle to and buckle under.

But for routine business he would much prefer to get his kit off, and the very first thing to go would be the wig. This is understandable. Barristers' wigs, of which the Lord Chancellor also disapproves, are hardly very onerous accessories. They perch on top of the head, a small mammal seeking refuge from a flood. The Lord Chancellor's wig is a more ponderous matter altogether - in its combination of wrap-around clutch and fleecy dangle it brings to mind a sheep clinging to a bollard. This is not very comfortable for the bollard. "The wig weighs an absolute ton, I can tell you," said Lord Irvine plaintively as he made his case to a wig loyalist.

It wasn't the only question of costume that came up. The fondness of some judges for rolling up their trouser legs and donning embroidered aprons was raised by Gerald Howarth, who asked the Lord Chancellor to comment on the Government's register of judicial Freemasons.

Rather as The Sun opened a "tell us if you're gay" hotline for cabinet ministers this week, the Government has recently instituted a "come out of the lodge" line for magistrates and High Court judges. Yesterday, Lord Irvine told us how many magistrates had availed themselves of this service, revealing that 6.8 per cent had confirmed that they indulged in mumbo- jumbo, though they did it in private and only with other consenting adults, while 5.4 per cent had refused to answer the question.

There was an almost audible buzz as journalists set about working out what percentage of Britain's magistrates could legitimately be identified as members of the funny handshake brigade. Start with 6.8, double it to account for the fact that women can't become Masons, add the year of your birth, take away as little as possible to account for conscientious objection, and end up with a number that you think you might get away with.

Mr Howarth shook his head disapprovingly at such flagrant outing and made one last sartorial suggestion. As shop steward for the nation's judges, wouldn't the Lord Chancellor defend them against this gross invasion of privacy? Lord Irvine, a man who likes to feel the wind in his hair, knew better than to swap his horsehair for a flat cap, and declined the offered post.