Great antagonist steps down as Blair's debt of gratitude is paid

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The Independent Online

Head in his hands, the man who once favourably compared himself to Cardinal Wolsey sat morosely at his desk contemplating his return to the world of plebeians and ingrates.

Out of favour, and soon to be out of office, Lord Irvine of Lairg had never faced the sack before. The Liberal Democrat peer who called in on him last week said he was inconsolable.

Yet Lord Irvine has encountered few obstacles in his life and never had to question his own importance. When asked recently about his political future he declared that he was like the Mississippi and would "go on for ever".

But the gaffe-prone Lord Chancellor attracted controversy wherever he went. Many blunders were not of his own making. A recent £22,000 pay-rise, taking his salary to £202,736, was forced on him by a Whitehall review board - and his views on non custodial sentences for burglars were simply a statement of the law as it stands. But his abrasive nature meant that he made few friends and many enemies.

If the Prime Minister feels he owed his Lord Chancellor, and former pupil master, a debt of gratitude it is clear he now considers it paid in full. Mr Blair accepts that Lord Irvine's presence jeopardised a possible Labour third term in office.

An attack by David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, on judges also exposed Lord Irvine's political weakness. It is the duty of the Lord Chancellor to protect judges from unjustified interference in the subtle relationship between the executive and the judiciary. Lord Irvine's power struggle with Mr Blunkett over control of the courts left him unable to mount a public defence. But it is not just Lord Irvine's political vulnerability that has done for him. His stewardship of the Government's reforms of the House of Lords has hit the buffers while his greatest achievements, devolution and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law, have run out of steam.

Since his appointment he has antagonised solicitors and barristers in equal measure while his relationship with the Law Society has been characterised by bitter rows.

The son of a Scottish slater and a waitress, he hauled himself to riches and success through academic study. He is attracted to intelligence and, in his professional life at least, disdainful of those who do not measure up to his standards.

His snobbish views on modern art and love of fine wine fuel a raging pomposity which have led critics to coin a phrase for his condition which they call "the trouble with Derry".

He can comfort himself that his fate will not be as terminal as some of his more illustrious predecessors, who found their heads literally on the chopping block. And although the passage of time may not treat him as kindly as it has Wolsey, historians will remember him as the last of the true lord chancellors.