Irvine 'fought against Blair's legal reforms'

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Indy Politics

Derry Irvine, Tony Blair's friend and legal mentor, was forced to leave the Government when he opposed the Prime Minister's legal reforms, it was reported last night.

As Mr Blair prepared to get rid of the 1,400-year-old office of Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine made a last-minute plea for the post to be retained. It is said to have prompted his departure from government, albeit close to the retirement he had planned to start later this year.

Although Downing Street refused to comment on the "process" of last week's much-criticised reshuffle, it has become clear that even the Cabinet was not consulted over the changes, the core of which was the creation of a Department for Constitutional Affairs.

Lord Irvine's reported stance has been echoed by many in the legal profession.

Yesterday, the chairman of the Bar Council suggested the sweeping changes to the judiciary could further undermine the independence of judges to make way for Mr Blair's "placemen".

Matthias Kelly - who leads the body representing barristers in England and Wales - said that the decisions to axe the post of Lord Chancellor and set up a Supreme Court and Judicial Appointments Commission, were "difficult to digest". Echoing the anger of the Tories and some Labour MPs, Mr Kelly told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "While in principle I welcome the appointment of a Judicial Appointments Commission, it's the detail and it's really the question of who's going to choose these people who choose the judges.

"A lot of us are very concerned because our recent experience with these attacks upon the independence of the judiciary does not give us a great deal of heart. We are very concerned about it because right at the heart of any democracy is that independence of the judiciary."

The speed at which Mr Blair set up the department, which includes the former Wales and Scotland offices, and the lack of detail available, has caused a rumpus at Westminster.

The shadow deputy prime minister, David Davis, said: "There was no consultation, no green paper, no white paper, no discussion at all." He accused the Prime Minister of treating the judicial system and the constitution as his own "personal bauble" and said that it had become "another pawn on his Cabinet board".

Both he and Mr Kelly insisted that the changes had not been properly thought through. Mr Davis suggested they were a product of a row between Mr Blair and David Blunkett, the Home Secretary - a charge that was rejected by Downing Street.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "This was not put together at the last minute because another plan had been thwarted. This was always what the Prime Minister wanted to do."

The proposals were welcomed by the Constitution Unit, an independent think-tank. Its director, Professor Robert Hazell, said the office of Lord Chancellor was a "constitutional anachronism".