Too big for his boots? Inside the court of Lord Irvine

Donald Macintyre talks to the Lord Chancellor
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Sitting yesterday across the large table in his handsome office in the Lords, I asked Lord Irvine of Lairg, the Lord Chancellor, whether the real problem was that he was too big for his boots. Nobody doubts the extent of his power. But not everyone likes it. He chairs, sometimes rather brutally, a lot of important Cabinet committees. He does not hide his light under a bushel.

On the one hand, he is admirably qualified for the job, as he well knows. Neil Kinnock would have made him Lord Chancellor. So would John Smith. But as Tony Blair's former pupilmaster and trusted mentor, isn't he rather too powerful for his own good? He is brisk and unfazed. "That is easy to say when I have all these Cabinet committees to chair. I think in the longer term when the current froth dies down, I will be judged by results."

So let's look at the froth first. An attack that has riled him exceedingly was the one on the pounds 650,000 sprucing up of his official house in the Lords. He quoted at length - from a 1986 text conveniently at his elbow - Margaret Thatcher warmly commending the importance of the Palace of Westminster as national heritage and, in particular, her pride in the similar - and at the time uncriticised - refurbishment of the Speaker's House. The equally "exciting" programme of work in the Lord Chancellor's lodgings, agreed before the election by an all-party committee, was no different. This is an art-loving Lord Chancellor, and it would be furnished for the first time with paintings and sculpture at present hidden in the cellars of great galleries - 19th-century works appropriate to Barry's architectural genius. Gibson's great sculpture Narcissus, for example, would gaze appropriately down at his own reflection in the Thames and behind it would be Sir Edward Landseer's magnificent portrait of the sculptor. This would be, in effect, a "new public gallery on the Thames".

Public? Well, it would, for the first time, be open two afternoons a week to members of the Victorian Society and the National Art Collections Fund, while scholars and other organisations would be able to visit on application at other times.

Did the wallpaper have to cost pounds 59,000? It would cost no more than wallpaper elsewhere in the Palace and would last 40 years. "Even Lord Chancellors are entitled to a lick of paint and some new wallpaper when it's required ... it will be within budget. Don't forget it needed to be rewired. It needed smoke alarms. There is a mass of work that had to be done for maintenance and to make safe an important part of the Palace of Westminster. And also I'm afraid I think if a job's worth doing it's worth doing well. And if it's not worth doing well it's not worth doing at all."

What of his notorious self-comparison with Cardinal Wolsey? He didn't doubt that it would be in his obituary. But this was not at all, he explains, the hubristic boast it is claimed to be, but a simple joke.

The Lord Chancellor sits beside me so that we can pore over both the text of the after-dinner speech in which he made the remark, and the Times account of it, presented as part of an interview. He compared himself with Wolsey in a jokey passage about past Lord Chancellors on the sole grounds that Wolsey had started the Star Chamber and he was chairman of a latter-day "Star Chamber", in the shape of the Cabinet committee on future legislation (QFL). He did also say, at the end of this passage, that "some of the earlier Lord Chancellors" illustrated the fact that "in past centuries the Lord Chancellor had an important wide-ranging role, encompassing politics, religion, the economy and even military affairs." What he didn't do was conflate the two thoughts.

But didn't it strike a chord precisely because his relationship to Tony Blair is terrifyingly close to that of Wolsey's to Henry VIII? And that his writ does indeed range over politics, and if not religion, the economy and even military affairs? And that he wields all this power as an unelected politician?

He saw it "rather differently". As chairman of many Cabinet committees, he was rather a "workhorse of this government". His experience of meetings with experts on a wide range of issues over the years made him a suitable chairman of QFL. "I do actually think if you have practised for 30 years at the Bar in very difficult areas of the law, you do bring, certainly in the area of constitutional reform, a breadth of experience with you which I am enthusiastic to put at the disposal of the Government."

The constitutional committees he chaired were interlinked; it was sensible to have a single chairman for them. "You mustn't underrate the huge difficulty of this task. It's very, very major. There has been no equivalent programme of constitutional reform this century."

Hang on. This doesn't quite answer the question. Certainly he has the qualifications to take on the "huge difficulty" of the task - except one: nobody had actually elected him. But, he said, wasn't a Lord Chancellor who was an experienced constitutional lawyer an appropriate person to handle constitutional reform? His predecessor Lord Mackay, who after all had been quite a busy man, hadn't chaired all these committees?

But his writ seemed to run much wider than the constitution. Wasn't he a prominent member of PX, the committee on public spending? Ah well, that was because there was a direct link between the legislative programme and the comprehensive spending reviews under PX.

Wasn't the truth that he acted as a sort of prosecuting counsel in PX sessions with spending ministers? I'd heard that he had treated one Secretary of State like a prisoner in the dock ... "Which one?" Lord Irvine demanded swiftly. Well, since you ask, George Robertson, Secretary of State for Defence. No, he said; first, he too had his own appearance before PX - and anyway he and George Robertson were "absolutely the best of friends ... But if PX is to do its job properly, if there's any merit in questioning assumptions and received wisdoms, then it's got to do its job professionally and vigorously. All my Cabinet colleagues have broad shoulders."

What about rumours that he bullied staff? "You should go and ask them. I think you'll find that my private office all rather like me." It was not true - as a newspaper diarist had reported - that he had ordered one of his private secretaries to peel an orange for him. What happened was that "the lady who gives me lunch in this room every day when I have a salad over work also occasionally peels oranges for me. She's very happy to. You should go and ask her. And I think the great public should be well pleased that I am getting a sensible daily diet of Vitamin C."

Finally, hadn't there been unease in the legal profession about the unexpected appointment as the Treasury Devil - the prestigious if not particularly well-paid barrister who works full-time for the Government - of Philip Sales, who just happened to hail from his own former chambers of 11 King's Bench Walk? First of all, this was not his appointment at all but that of the Solicitor General, Charles Falconer, who knew the Bar backwards. "Charlie Falconer will tell you that there was a strong consensus that Philip Sales was the outstanding candidate."

We turned to the rumours that he was at virtually permanent loggerheads with Jack Straw and his colleagues at the Home Office. Lord Irvine reached for a sheaf of cuttings to deal with each reported casus belli in turn.

First, a Daily Mail report that Mr Straw had scored a famous victory over him by ensuring that CPS lawyers would be able to appear in magistrates' courts without expensive barristers. This was a marginal question - "very small beer" - postponing the big issue of CPS lawyers' right to appear in all levels of the courts. All that had happened was that the original QFL decision to leave the legislation to the next session had been brought forward. "I doubt very much that Jack Straw will be claiming this as some kind of triumph. I take this opportunity to say that I have a good co- operative relationship with Jack Straw."

So given all these reports about his alleged interference, which he strongly denies, was someone out to get him at the Home Office? "Oh, it's not for me to entertain such unworthy suspicions. Of course I don't."

But wouldn't he, as some of his colleagues have been known to claim, ideally want to preside over a Ministry of Justice, leaving the Home Office as a continental-style Ministry of the Interior? "I think this department is a Ministry of Justice. If you put a plaque saying Ministry of Justice outside the front door, I don't think anyone would be in the least surprised. But if you ask me if I have irredentist ambitions over the remit of the Home Office, the answer is no. The secret is effective co-operative arrangements so policy is carried forward by discussion and agreement."

He is clearly proud of the role his Cabinet committee chairmanship played in the White Papers on the European Convention on Human Rights and the much more liberal than expected Freedom of Information Bill - and feels, perhaps, that they have not yet been given the recognition they deserve. He is equally adamant that his planned switch from legal aid to lawyers taking cases on a no-win, no-fee basis is a great reform whose time has come. When you press him over about the widespread fears that the poor may not be able to persuade lawyers to take cases under the new system, there is the hint of at least one modest concession on the way. First, as he has already made clear, there will be a Public Interest Fund to ensure that cases testing an important principle will still be protected. But he also let slip for the first time that there may be a "hardship" or "hard cases" fund to ensure that if poor litigants are denied access to justice - where they have a 75 per cent chance of success - they can go to court.

On Lords reform, he is not - in accordance with the principle that no Bill should be promised until it has been agreed by Cabinet - committing himself to legislation in the next session ending hereditary rights. But that should not be taken as backing off. "Quite the opposite." It is clear that a Bill is still probable. Might he go a tiny way to meeting Tory anxieties - perhaps by allowing hereditary peers a handful of voting representatives but with their heirs precluded from the peerage? He will say only that every option will be considered that doesn't break the principle of Labour's outright opposition to hereditary rights.

Yes, he says, no doubt he has enemies. But everyone does. "I actually believe my relations with Cabinet colleagues are very good." His job driving forward policy on Cabinet committees - every one of which, he says in a typical Irvine-ism, has met its ambitious timetable - puts him in a potentially controversial position.

And look at all these cuttings he has assembled on the table. Isn't he a little obsessive about press criticism? "On the contrary, I am not in the least obsessive about the press. Having been a lawyer all my life I correctly anticipated that you would ask me about all these stories. You're just criticising me for being efficient."

So if Cardinal Wolsey is not the model - "Oh, for God's sake, I thought I'd persuaded you," he interjects with just a touch of asperity - was it more perhaps Willie Whitelaw, with his pivotal role in the Thatcher Cabinet? "It's for others to judge whether I'm as avuncular as Willie Whitelaw. I come from an entirely different source, as it were, from Willie Whitelaw. He was a very emollient figure. People tell me I am not emollient."