SEVEN YEARS AGO, Lord Irvine had the world on a string: New Labour had won a stunning landslide victory in the general election; the new Prime Minister was none other than his friend and former pupil, Tony Blair, and the new lord chancellor was being hailed in a Times leader as nothing less than "a colossus of domestic policy".
Derry Irvine would have been the first to agree with the Times’s assessment, of course. Never troubled by anything so mundane as modesty, he spent the months after the election telling anyone who’d listen what a big man he’d become. He bragged about his membership of the Prime Minister’s inner circle, crowed about the numerous committees he chaired and droned on about his responsibility for the government’s legislative programme. He clearly believed he was the second most important member of the Cabinet.
Yet today, Lord Irvine is all but forgotten. Summarily sacked last summer, he has moved from the heart of government to the political margins and is currently reduced to a brooding presence on the back-benches of the House of Lords.
Things may yet get worse before they get better. He has drifted apart from Alison, the wife he famously stole from his friend, Donald Dewar, in the early 1970s. His son Alastair, meanwhile, continues to make the wrong sort of headlines following his release from a US prison, where he served eight months of a 16-month sentence for a string of offences, including stalking. Irvine’s flat in Smith Square - one of the biggest in Westminster and home to his legendary art collection - is now on the market. He still spends time at his former powerbase, but occasionally scuttles off to his Scottish home on the banks of West Loch Tarbert in Argyll. He is said to have taken his sacking very badly, and though now 64, does not feel ready to retire.
But with no job in the offing - he had his eye on the post of British ambassador to Australia, but that job went to former Scottish secretary Helen Liddell - he has little idea what to do with his days. He still rises at 6.30am, but sleeps badly. He has been spotted shambling around Smith Square, popping into local shops for milk and sugar. He often takes the bus.
For a man whose power once extended to the highest levels in the country, it is an extraordinary fall from grace. Friends say he is not bitter, just disappointed. At the time of his sacking, he was apparently very shocked. A year on, though, and with no official role to take on, anger must surely be replacing misery. Who is to say he might not cash in with a book? Having been summarily dropped by Blair, he has little left to lose, and plenty to gain were he wishing to wreak revenge.
Yet, while he may find a willing readership, Lord Irvine will find compassion in short supply. When all is said and done, he is simply not a nice man. In his time at the Bar, his name was a byword for arrogance and pomposity. For such a man to move into public life was little short of madness. In October 1997, he delivered a toe-curling speech at the Reform Club in which he boasted of his close relationship with Blair and his position at the "cusp of government". Unable to contain his self-satisfaction, he went so far as to compare himself to Henry VIII’s lord chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. Even though the speech’s contents were explosive, Lord Irvine was safe because his appearance at the Reform Club had been subject to the Chatham House rules, a journalistic convention that precludes any media coverage. It was only when he handed a copy of the speech to a Times reporter - and invited her to quote freely from it - that the Wolsey story hit the front pages.
Lord Irvine was by now beginning to attract attention for his decision to spend 650,000 of taxpayers’ money on redecorating the lord chancellor’s residence at the House of Lords. It was not until the following year, however, that the affair began to gather momentum, with reports that he had bought curtains at 200 a metre and hand-printed wallpaper at 300 a roll. It was a damn good story - he intervened and made it a great one.
In March 1998, he made a televised appearance before a Commons committee, ostensibly to talk about privacy and freedom of information. However, David Ruffley, the Tory MP for Bury St Edmunds, decided to raise the subject of the 650,000 refurbishment. His ego pricked, Lord Irvine dismissed the affair as no more than a "remarkable storm in a teacup". Then, he proclaimed: "We are talking about quality materials, which are capable of lasting for 60 or 70 years. We are not talking about something down in a [do-it-yourself] store which may collapse after a year or two."
He believed his performance had been a triumph. It was not until he saw the next day’s papers that he realised he had another disaster on his hands. Alastair Campbell decided enough was enough. What happened next is without precedent in British history: at the behest of a press secretary, a senior minister was ordered not to speak to the media again. Lord Irvine received little support from his Cabinet colleagues during these travails. In fact, many were delighted to see him struggle. His most bitter clashes were with the then home secretary, Jack Straw. Straw was not intimidated by his bluster and wrote to the lord chancellor reminding him he was unelected and owed his position to the Prime Minister’s patronage.
LORD IRVINE WAS not merely unelected, he was unelectable. In the general election of 1970, he was decisively rejected by the voters of Hendon North. John Gorst, the victorious Tory, claimed the crucial factor in Lord Irvine’s defeat was his lack of a common touch. That may seem an odd failing for the son of a roof tiler, but Lord Irvine had turned his back on the working classes long before. Driven on by his ambitious mother, he attended the Glasgow fee-paying school Hutchesons before completing his education at Glasgow University and Christ’s College, Cambridge. Then, in 1967, after a spell teaching at the London School of Economics, he was called to the Bar and took Silk in 1978.
He made an extremely good living at the Bar, regularly squeezing huge fees out of his clients. But, within a few months of becoming lord chancellor, he used a speech in the House of Lords to launch an attack on "Fat Cat" barristers. The poacher had suddenly turned gamekeeper.
Even more remarkable was his relationship with his senior clerk. Philip Monham, a highly regarded administrator, effectively doubled as Lord Irvine’s butler. One bemused barrister told me: "I was in the clerks’ room talking to Philip, and Derry puts his head around the door and goes, ‘Philip. Boot polish’. At which point Philip moved as though propelled by the hand of God out of his chair, seamlessly grabbing the boot polish and the cloth. The next thing I see is Derry with one foot on a chair with Philip polishing his shoes."
The strange thing is, Blair knew all this. He had, after all, been Lord Irvine’s pupil and maintained a close relationship with his mentor after quitting his chambers for politics. Nevertheless, in 1997, he chose as his lord chancellor a 56-year-old with no people skills, little experience of the real world and even less common sense. What’s more, he gave him far more power than any lord chancellor of the modern era.
As Leader of the Opposition, Blair had witnessed the infighting that dogged John Major’s government. Consequently, he was determined to keep his ministerial sheep in the pen. Lord Irvine, he knew, would make the perfect rottweiler.
For a time it worked. But, as Labour got used to being back in power, so ministers became less frightened of Lord Irvine’s bark. No longer valuable as a deterrent, he became increasingly expendable once devolution had been delivered and constitutional reform began to slip down the agenda.
In the year since his dismissal, Lord Irvine has maintained a dignified silence. Despite having become Falstaff to Blair’s Hal, it seems he may still be loyal to his former pupil. Alternatively, he may be hoping the Prime Minister will throw him a bone in the shape of a cushy public position.
That is not such a forlorn hope. Blair does owe Lord Irvine a huge debt. The Prime Minister’s aversion to criticism might also work in Lord Irvine’s favour. Having operated for six years at the "cusp of government", the former lord chancellor must have some very interesting tales to tell. And if a repeat offender like Peter Mandelson can be granted a prime ministerial pardon (and a very nice job with the European Union), doesn’t Lord Irvine have the right to expect some sort of consolation prize?
FINDING LORD IRVINE new employment will not be easy. First and foremost, the job would have to be one that involves little or no contact with the media - Blair will not want his former lord chancellor to cause him any further embarrassment. And even if he were to spill the beans in a book, it cannot possibly compensate him for the destruction of his dream and the loss of his reputation. A man who came into office with the intention of going down in history as one of the great reforming lord chancellors, is going to be remembered as "Tony’s crony", the "Wallpaper Man" and "Cardinal Irvine".
Dominic Egan is the author of Irvine: Politically Correct? published by Mainstream at 15.99