Saturday, 31 October 2009

Irvine: Blair was completely clueless

Tony Blair's abolition (or, to be more specific, attempted abolition, followed by effective-but-not-quite-abolition) of the ancient and stately office of Lord Chancellor was one of the more remarkable and telling episodes of his time in power. Dishing a thousand years of history in the name of modernisation, it was an act of unparallelled constitutional vandalism, done with scarcely a second thought. It has led to avoidable expense, setting up and furnishing a new Supreme Court and paying a large salary to the holder of an unnecessary new post of "Lord Speaker". And it was done in a remarkably botched way. It was back-of-the-envelope stuff, partly carried out to remove a perceived anomaly, but mainly - so it is generally reckoned - to rid Blair of his former mentor Lord Irvine, an ancient friend of both Blairs (but especially of Cherie) who had long behaved as though he were still head of chambers.

The Times today has a new insight into the story: Derry has finally "broken his silence" in evidence to a House of Lords committee, and it's fairly explosive stuff. He describes, says the report, "how he fought, with increasing desperation over several days and in three separate meetings with Mr Blair, to save his job" - well, he would, wouldn't he? - but, more importantly, claims that Blair had no idea what abolishing the lord chancellorship actually involved:


Lord Irvine asked “how a decision of this magnitude” could be made without consultation with himself, the permanent secretary within government, the judiciary, House of Lords authorities and the Palace.

“The Prime Minister appeared mystified and said that these machinery of government changes always had to be carried into effect in a way that precluded such discussion because of the risk of leaks.”


Blair, in other words, had no idea that there were any legal consequences to abolishing the lord chancellorship, and imagined that the process would be no more complex or time-consuming than doing away with the department of transport or inventing the department of "communities". He appeared "mystified" when Irvine put it to him that killing off the position of lord chancellor raised rather serious constitutional issues.

Forget, for the moment, the argument about whether or not getting rid of Irvine, or his office, was a sensible idea. This is astonishing. Tony Blair, let it be remembered, trained, qualified and for a time practised as a barrister. Every first-year law student used to learn how the lord chancellor was the head and linchpin of the courts and the judiciary - how, in the words of an old Encyclopedia Britannica, the convolutions of history had conferred on him "an extraordinary range and variety of functions". As WS Gilbert put it, he embodied the law. Yet apparently as prime minister Blair had forgotten how the legal system worked in Britain and imagined he could abolish the lord chancellor with a wave of his pen. This isn't just mind-blowing incompetence, it's scarcely believable.

But no wonder he thought invading Iraq would be a cinch.