New Labour's ticking bomb

Jilted by the party he loved, Derry Irvine now bides his time in the Lords. But, says Robert Verkaik, there are ministers who wonder if he'll reveal all...
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Tales of his misadventures in Westminster used to be a rich source of copy for all newspaper columnists. Who can forget his own puffed-up comparison with Cardinal Wolsey or his extravagant penchant for Pugin wallpaper?

But nearly a year after Derry Irvine's spectacular fall from grace there's been barely a peep out of the great man. Ejected from his woolsack after six years of loyal service to the party his fellow lords say Irvine has become a brooding presence on Labour's back-benches. "I often see him in the lords' tea room and in the bar," says one of his former sparring partners, "where he seems a little lost. I have to say that he looks very much out of sorts these days."

This is hardly surprising. Derry Irvine, now 64, was once the most powerful Lord Chancellor of moden times. Under his stewardship his department steadily grew to become one of the biggest in Whitehall. He sat on 10 cabinet committees and had the ear of the Prime Minister whom he once famously referred to as "young Blair". After his sudden and rather brutal exit in last June's reshuffle friends and enemies alike expected him to be quickly rewarded with a high-profile job in public life. Such an ignoble end to a political career merited some kind of compensation. But no such post materialised.

Then there were rumours that Irvine would retire to the ivory towers of academia. He was hotly tipped to become the next master of Trinity College Cambridge but was passed over for a less socially abrasive candidate. As one legal commentator said recently: "He is not the fundraising type and does not have the necessary social skills. For similar reasons, to do with his slightly spiky, somewhat awkward, non-ingratiating personality, he is unlikely to become the chairman of some big bank or other City institution. Nor is he likely to find anything in the European Union, à la Neil Kinnock or Roy Jenkins."

He has however found a little work advising Hutchison Ports (UK) Ltd, a Hong Kong-based firm better known in this country for the high street brand Superdrug. This is a part-time post that offers Irvine the chance to return to the former British colony where he forged a reputation as an employment lawyer advising big business.

Even so, this it is not enough to keep a man of Derry Irvine's many talents fully occupied. Instead he has had to retreat into his recreational hinterland that includes passions for modern art, fine wines and flamenco guitar. Of course, these must now be pursued outside the comfort of the Lord Chancellor's private apartment in the House of Lords on which he lavished the famous Pugin hand-rolled wallpaper. He had to give that up when he lost his job.

But Irvine still owns a modest estate in Ayrshire, Scotland, and a house in London where he continues to entertain a small coterie of friends whom he has known since his days at Glasgow University. One of them says: "He is still on very good form but I think he has found it very difficult adjusting to his new role and he is certainly not as extended as he would like to be."

A natural home for Irvine's abilities might be a permanent place on the bench where he would no doubt have ended up had he not set his sights on the lord chancellorship. As a serving lord chancellor he stubbornly guarded his right to sit as a part-time law lord but only managed to hear a handful of cases in six years. It was his refusal to separate these powers that many believe ultimately cost him his job. Now Irvine is trapped by the constitutional convention which limits the number of cases former lord chancellors can hear to one or two appeals a year, which hardly constitutes a full-time job. More importantly it is thought that he may be constitutionally barred from returning to private practice as a barrister since the market intelligence to which he would have had access as the minister responsible for the legal professions makes it impossible for him to go back to chambers.

One of his friends says he has been forced to contemplate an appointment as a referee in multinational disputes. This is lucrative work often undertaken by former law lords and Irvine's experience as a commercial silk leaves him well equipped to take on such work. Then there is the question of a book. Again, political conventions prevent him from writing a warts-and-all account of his time as Lord Chancellor but a more academic treatment of the office he once held and which Labour has pledged to abolish, might be more acceptable. There is, of course, also the option of doing nothing, since Lord Irvine is not short of a few bob. His much publicised pension pay-off and savings and investments from his days as a high-flying QC have provided him the means with which to bide his time.

So there he glumly sits on the back-benches of the lords - a potentially lethal thorn in the side of a Labour government. What surprises many is how Irvine has kept his own counsel. Although he still comes to Westminster to sit through many of the debates, no-one can actually remember his ever making any significant contribution. "He is very concerned that anyone will think of him as disloyal to the party and he wants to be remembered as a good servant," says a close friend from his days at Glasgow University who had dinner with him recently.

Others suggest there is more calculation to his silence as he doesn't just know where the bodies are buried but how and why they were killed. Ministers antagonise him at their peril. Last month it was enough that he let it be known that he was unhappy with a government proposal to curb the right of appeal for asylum seekers to get ministers in a panic and announce an immediate climb-down. Irvine thus had no chance to carry out his threat of making his feelings plain during a Lords debate and his silence makes it impossible to know whether he bears a grudge against his former ministerial colleagues. His reluctance to speak about any of this in public only adds to speculation that Irvine is a ticking time-bomb at the heart of Labour who could go off at any moment.

Like Sir Thomas More - another lord chancellor who adopted a policy of silence when asked to chose between his leader and his principles - Lord Irvine may have to say a little more to prove his loyalty.