Focus: Charlie is my darling

Lord Falconer, appointed last week as the Prime Minister's eyes and ears on ministerial committees, is his oldest and closest friend

Rachel Sylvester
Sunday 25 October 1998 00:02
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The friendship between Tony Blair and Charles Falconer goes back 30 years to when they were both at school in Scotland. But they have always made a curious pair. While Tony turned up for lessons in a neatly pressed uniform and shiny shoes, Charlie arrived at the neighbouring establishment with his shirt hanging out and his laces undone. Tony emerged as a natural performer, starring in school plays, donning purple flares to sing in his rock group Ugly Rumours and then becoming an MP; Charlie stayed out of the limelight, made his millions at the Bar and developed an encyclopaedic academic knowledge of Seventies pop. Nowadays, when Blair sips mineral water and eats fruit, Falconer guzzles claret and sticky puddings.

There is a nice story about the time they lived together as young lawyers in Wandsworth in south London. Blair would drive his laid-back friend mad by going on about how important it was to work hard in your twenties if you were to get to the top. One night, after Falconer had been given a particularly passionate lecture about ambition, he stumbled sleepily towards the bathroom at 3.30am to find his flatmate in the kitchen wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. "What the hell are you doing?" he said, thinking Blair had taken his hard work motto to a ridiculous extreme. "Just going to the office," was the reply. The future prime minister's alarm clock had gone off three hours early and he had not noticed that it was still dark outside. Charlie, now Lord Falconer of Thoroton and minister without portfolio, has never let him forget it.

If Derry Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, is Tony Blair's father figure, then Charlie Falconer is like a brother. Blair has acquired a couple more siblings along the way - Peter Mandelson, the Trade and Industry Secretary, and Alastair Campbell, his official spokesman, for example - but it is Falconer who remains his oldest and closest friend.

Falconer is one of the least known members of the Blair circle. But his appointment to 14 ministerial committees last week as "the eyes and ears of the Prime Minister", as one member of the Government put it, confirmed what everyone suspected. Lord Falconer, known affectionately at the Cabinet Office as "the man with his shirt hanging out", is one of the most powerful and important men in Britain. Whatever role may have been ascribed to Jack Cunningham, Falconer is the real government "enforcer", whose job is to sort out problems and smooth over differences between departments.

FALCONER pops in and out of No 10 even more often than Mandelson, his predecessor as minister without portfolio, used to. He is at least as powerful - although very different. He wouldn't be seen dead wearing cycling shorts in a Notting Hill gym, and the first thing he did when he moved into his new office was replace the erotic prints hanging on the wall with sepia photographs of his wife and children. His role is less about presentation, more about policy. Downing Street insiders see his appointment as part of the Government's decision to "grow up", and to try to throw off its obsession with image. "He's Tony's alter ego, a sounding board, someone he can rely on," one minister said. "He instinctively represents Tony's instincts and everyone knows it."

To the Tories, Lord Falconer is a dream target - Tony Blair's "crony- in-chief". He was parachuted into the Lords after failing to be selected to stand in a safe Labour seat because he sent his children to private school. He admits this is at odds with Labour policy, but says he must put his four sons and daughters before ideology. Since then, despite his confessed lack of political experience, he has been rapidly promoted up the ministerial ladder.

Labour backbenchers resent the inexorable rise of this wealthy, public school-educated barrister with a taste for the high life. They dislike the fact that he specialised not in human rights but in lucrative commercial law, advising betes noires such as British Nuclear Fuels and representing British Coal against trade unions in legal challenges over pit closures. "He's a very nice man, extremely able, but he's basically a left-wing Tory," one Labour MP said. But even Falconer's harshest critics admit he's doing rather a good job. "It pains me to say it but he is actually extremely intelligent," one left-winger said. And it is impossible to find anybody who does not think he is "genuinely charming".

Charles Falconer was born nearly 47 years ago to middle-class parents who sent him to Glenalmond school in Edinburgh and put him through Christian holiday camps in the summer. He and Blair first met as teenagers, in the latter's room at Fettes, and to begin with they got on, Falconer says, "very, very badly". Not only were they very different they also became love rivals, vying for the affections of Amanda Mackenzie-Stuart, Blair's sixth-form girlfriend.

They did not keep in touch when they went off to university - Blair to Oxford, Falconer to Cambridge - but met up again in 1976, when they were both working as barristers in London. At this point, they hit it off and became almost inseparable. They were, in their own words, part of the "smelly-sock brigade" - the left-wing barristers who congregated in the wine bars and restaurants near their homes in Islington.

Charlie carried on at the Bar, rising to the rank of QC on pounds 500,000 a year by 1991. Tony was elected as MP for Sedgefield but they still met regularly for long arguments about how to set the world to rights. Blair used Falconer as a sounding board for what the left-leaning middle classes were thinking. "He thought he symbolised a group of bright professional people who had rejected the Labour Party in the early Eighties because the Labour Party was mad," one Blairite said.

When Labour was still in opposition, the two men had Sunday lunch together almost every week. Falconer's Islington home was the venue for campaign meetings during Blair's drive to become Labour leader, and shortly before the election, he helped raise pounds 40,000 for the party by hosting an auction at the River Cafe in west London.

By this time both had married high-flying barristers. When Falconer proposed to Marianna Hildyard, the daughter of a diplomat, friends say her parents were initially concerned that this scruffy young lawyer was not establishment enough. Cherie Booth and Marianna Hildyard are also close friends - although those who know them say their personalities are as different as their husbands. "They are both clever and successful but Cherie is more overtly ambitious, much tougher than Marianna," said one. The setting may have moved from Islington to Chequers or Downing Street, but the couples still regularly meet for dinner, and little appears to have changed in their relationship. "Charlie's very irreverent," one friend explained. "Tony likes having people around him who feel comfortable taking the piss out of him because it keeps him in touch with reality and Charlie will certainly do that. If he thinks Tony's said something silly he'll just parody it."

UNTIL NOW nobody has really known what Falconer did - but he has had a surprisingly influential backroom job since 1 May last year. When other European countries refused to lift the ban on British beef, it was Falconer who trawled through the memos and telegrams and drew up the list of arguments which persuaded them to do so. When Blair was considering whether or not to back the idea of a European defence capability, he turned to Falconer for advice. Now Blair is said to be picking his brains on the minefield that is the debate over proportional representation as he tries to draw up a response to the Jenkins Commission report.

This is a role Falconer played unofficially in opposition. Robin Cook claimed the credit for Labour's formidable response to the Scott report on the arms-to-Iraq affair - but it was actually Falconer who took three hours to come up with the 10 "killer arguments" against the Government. "Tony uses him often as a knife to cut through issues. His job is to assess other people's views," a Downing Street insider said. People who have lunch with this minister find him so entertaining that they hardly notice that he somehow manages to get more out of them than they do out of him.

Peter Kilfoyle, a fellow minister at the Cabinet Office, believes the combination of quick-wittedness and charm is Falconer's secret. "He has one of the sharpest minds I have ever come across," he said. "But he's also a people person - you get the distinct impression Charlie is actually interested in people. He naturally relates to them. He's lightened the place a lot."

It is indeed because he is not a career politician that he manages to maintain another perspective. While Peter Mandelson still struggles to throw off his image as the "sinister minister", Derry Irvine gets in a state about his wallpaper, and Gordon Brown tries to persuade himself he does not want to be leader of the Labour Party, Falconer is one of the few ministers totally happy with his lot. And perhaps this explains Blair's decision to bring him into the kitchen Cabinet. "He can trust Charlie totally," a close ally of the Prime Minister said. "He is very able, has no overwhelming personal ambition and no real desire to push an agenda of his own. That's very rare in politics."

road to the top

1951 Born, 19 November. Educated at Trinity College, Glenalmond, and Queen's College, Cambridge.

1974 Called to the Bar

1985 Marries fellow-barrister Marianna Hildyard

1991 Becomes QC

1997 Created Baron Falconer of Thoroton: appointed Solicitor-General

1998 Appointed minister without portfolio

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