The question is being widely asked: ‘Is Tony Blair fit to be President of Europe?’ An even more pertinent question is, was Tony Blair fit to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom?
Judging from revelations by his old chum and former mentor “Derry” Irvine - head of the barristers’ chambers of which both Tony Blair and his wife Cherie Booth were members and first met each other, and once known as ‘Tony’s chief crony’ - the answer is an unequivocal “No”.
Lord Irvine of Lairg was the last holder of the historic office of Lord Chancellor until its abolition in 2003, and his recently released paper to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution’s Cabinet Office Inquiry reveals that he was unceremoniously bundled out of office without any prior consultation concerning this major constitutional change even though it affected him personally.
When Bonnie Prince Charlie landed at Moidart to ignite the ‘Forty-Five’ and summoned his loyal clan chiefs to join him, one of the foremost, Cameron of Lochiel, endeavoured to dissuade him, being convinced that the expedition was sheer folly, whereupon the Prince won him over by saying that he was determined to proceed, and that “Lochiel, whom my father esteemed the best friend of our family, may remain at home, and learn his Prince’s fate from the newspapers”. Poor Lord Irvine fared even worse: he learnt his own fate from the newspapers.
Having maintained a dignified silence for six years, Lord Irvine has now broken cover because of evidence given to the Select Committee by Lord Turnbull, who was Cabinet Secretary at the time. Lord Turnbull, when asked whether the incumbent Lord Chancellor was consulted about the government’s decision to abolish his office, replied: “The Lord Chancellor was consulted. The trouble was that he disagreed with it”. The conventional route of consultation could not be followed because Lord Irvine was unwilling to act as the advocate of change and was not prepared to lead the consultation, Lord Turnbull alleged. “On the day it was a complete mess up.”
Not so, Lord Irvine now declares. It was HE who was not consulted. “In early June 2003 there were press rumours that the office of Lord Chancellor was to be abolished. I had no intimation of this, but when the TIMES and the TELEGRAPH carried the rumour I determined to see the Prime Minister.” He did so on 5th June. “I asked him directly if there was any truth in the press rumour that the office of Lord Chancellor was to be abolished and transferred to a new Secretary of State in the Commons. He hesitated and then said it was being considered, but nothing had as yet been decided. I asked him how a decision of this magnitude could be made without prior consultation with me…within government, with the judiciary, with the authorities of the House of Lords which would lose its Speaker and with the Palace. The Prime Minister APPEARED MYSTIFIED [Anticant’s emphasis] and said that these machinery of government changes always had to be carried into effect in a way that precluded much discussion because of the risk of leaks.”
Lord Irvine left the meeting “surprised (a) that the Prime Minister thought the abolition of the office of Lord Chancellor was of the same order as any [other] machinery of government changes…and (b) that the Prime Minister had no appreciation that the abolition of this Office of State, with a critical role in our unwritten constitution affecting a House of Parliament, the judiciary, of which the Lord Chancellor was by statute Head and by constitutional convention guarantor of its independence, required extensive consultation, most careful preparation and primary legislation.”
Lord Irvine saw Blair again on 9th June, when the Prime Minister lamely said that it had been impossible to discuss the proposals with the Lord Chancellor in advance – even though they concerned the abolition of his own office! – because such discussions “would leak all over the press”. Lord Irvine comments: “It then strongly bore in on me that the Prime Minister had not received any or any proper advice and was completely unaware that complex primary legislation was required.”
Further discussion convinced Lord Irvine that the whole project was botched, and missed an opportunity to make properly considered constitutional and administrative changes. “We left off on the basis, as the Prime Minister was always wont to say, that that no final decision had been taken, but I felt that in reality the die was cast…”
Next day Lord Irvine handed the Prime Minister a note pointing out that there were about 5,000 statutory references to the Lord Chancellor in primary and secondary legislation, and without a proper amending Statute redefining his existing functions administrative chaos would be unavoidable. Constitutionally, the Lord Chancellor was regarded as the guarantor of judicial independence. To proceed without any consultation with the judiciary, or with the House of Lords authorities about the Chancellor’s role as Speaker, would be high-handed and insensitive. “Since the political decision is to close down a great Office of State with broad constitutional implications, then it should be done in a seemly, measured and balanced way instead of the incoherent, unworked up and piecemeal approach currently likely to be adopted.” He followed this up with a more formal memorandum outlining the steps he thought should be followed. But the next day – June 12th – this was rejected by the Cabinet, and “that afternoon I returned the Great Seal to Her Majesty and ceased to be a member of the government.”
Lord Irvine has obviously written and published his paper under the stress of considerable indignation. Leaving his personal feelings aside, what does it tell us about Blair’s prime ministerial performance? Coming hot on the heels of his ‘sofa government’ approach to the Iraq war via sexed up dodgy dossiers and broken promises about a second UN resolution, the Irvine episode may seem something of a storm in a teacup. But it isn’t – it vividly confirms and illustrates – as many New Labour ministerial memoirs still to come seem likely to do – the insouciant, at times almost wacky, atmosphere at No. 10 during the reign of King Tony.
Tony in Never-Never Land? Or, maybe, Turnbull in a China Shop? Either way, is this weird and intellectually frivolous man really European Presidential material? I don’t think so. The only deep thing about him is his incorrigible shallowness.