Lord Irvine's £650,000 wallpaper to grace canteen

IT WAS the first signal of the excesses of New Labour after Tony Blair came to power.

Derry Irvine provoked ridicule and outrage in the early months of his period as Lord Chancellor with his demands for a lavish makeover at his official residence. The huge operation, involving hand-printed wallpaper at 300 a roll, ultimately set the taxpayer back some 650,000.

But it can now be revealed that the empire Lord Irvine fashioned during six years as head of the English judiciary is being brutally dismantled. And, most galling of all, the notoriously expensive wallpaper is set to dignify the Westminster equivalent of a works canteen.

The House of Lords has revealed that it will seize control of the Lord Chancellor's official parliamentary residence when the post undergoes radical surgery later this year.

The extensive accommodation, which includes more than 14 rooms and a private flat spread over three floors overlooking the River Thames has long been coveted by backbench Lords, who are outgrowing the space presently allocated to them.

The value of the rooms soared after Irvine treated them to more than just a lick of paint in late 1997, and it became clear that the present Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, does not use the grandly-decorated flat that was his predecessor's London home.

Now it has emerged that they can prepare to take over. "The Administration and Works Committee has agreed that once the Lord Chancellor ceases to be Speaker of the House he should leave most of his current accommodation," the peers' Chairman of Committees, Lord Brabazon of Tara, confirmed.

And, in a line that marks the closest the noble Lords come to a coup, he added: "The committee has further agreed that the accommodation should be kept for the use of the House as a whole."

Irvine, formerly Blair's boss at his barristers' chambers, sparked criticism during New Labour's first term in office when he compared himself with Wolsey, the Lord Chancellor who acted as a wise and trusted adviser to Henry VIII.

But the condemnation of his alleged pomposity was dwarfed by the reaction to the makeover of his official residence.

Shortly after he was confirmed as Blair's first Lord Chancellor, Irvine, the highest-paid member of the government, presented plans for his lavish makeover, including electrical and fire-alarm work, building, decorating and plumbing.

The work, agreed by his colleagues after an extensive lobbying campaign, covered nearly 60,000 on wallpaper, 56,000 on light fittings and 16,000 on two oak beds.

The details, which only emerged in the form of a parliamentary written answer, included further items such as 8,000 on design work, 23,000 on decorating, 7,200 on lighting design, 10,000 on picture lighting and 650 on an item described as "prototype curtain poles".

But his enthusiasm for "returning the apartments to their original Victorian glory" was not shared by many members of the public, opposition politicians, or even fellow members of his own government. But Irvine's department argued that the work was needed because the apartments are part of the national heritage and are used for public functions.

Irvine himself later replied that handprinted wallpaper was not like "something down at the DIY store that might collapse after a year or so", and assured the nation that "posterity would be grateful" for his industry.

He later borrowed 1m-worth of art from Scottish galleries to adorn his nine-room apartment.

But the interest in the surroundings was not shared by Irvine's successor. Falconer, a millionaire lawyer with homes in London and Northamptonshire, worked in the offices attached to the accommodation, but did not use the residence. His fellow peers have now decided to seize their chance.

Much of the office space will eventually be taken over by the "Lord Speaker", a new post similar to the Speaker of the House of Commons, which will replace most of the functions of Falconer's office.

But peers will move into the largest room, which will become their "Writing Room", with additional space for a meeting room and refreshment facilities.

Most significantly, however, they will move upstairs and effectively take over the most lavishly-decorated rooms of all, the Lord Chancellor's flat. It will be a brutal scrap. "The committee has agreed that some of the rooms will be available for official entertainment," Lord Brabazon added.

"Party groupings, the cross-benchers and individual members will be able to bid for the use of these rooms for official parliamentary or charity events.

"The Lord Speaker will control the diary for these rooms and will have priority in their use in order to entertain on behalf of the House."

It is not yet clear whether they will do so within walls decorated by 59,000-worth of wallpaper, or enhanced by 20,000 curtains. The paintings have gone, and the remaining adornments of Irvine's empire are facing the end.