Irvine Accused Blair of “Botched” Reforms

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold and Lord Irvine’s first response to his sacking by Tony Blair more than six years ago is all the better for being positively icy.

It comes in the form of an 11-page paper to the House of Lords Constitution Committee. The paper, dated October 26, is on the committee’s website. I am grateful to today’s Times for alerting me to it.

Irvine begins by saying that, when he ceased to become Lord Chancellor in June 2003, he “decided to make no complaint, to maintain silence and to do nothing to embarrass the government”. 

He had maintained that position for six years. “I have now decided that it is more important to ensure the accuracy of the public record.”

And whom did he accuse of inaccuracy? It was none other than Lord Turbull, Cabinet Secretary in 2003.

In evidence to the committee at the beginning of July, Turnbull indicated that Irvine had been “strongly against” abolishing the post of Lord Chancellor and had not been prepared to co-operate with the Prime Minister.

The former Cabinet Secretary said something pretty similar in an interview with me for Top Dogs, my Radio 4 programme last month about the creation of the Supreme Court:

The Prime Minister was clear that this was something he wanted to do. He also knew that it would be very difficult to achieve with Lord Irvine in place because he was not enthusiastic about it.  And there was a possibility that they could have reached some deal in which Lord Irvine said, “I will see this through and then I will go.”  But the Prime Minister concluded that he preferred, in a sense, to go it alone.

Irvine declined to take part in that programme. But he has now revealed that he would indeed have been willing to co-operate with Blair if the Prime Minister had been prepared to modify his plans.

Following press reports that the Lord Chancellor’s post was to be abolished, Irvine went to see the Prime Minister on June 5, 2003. The Lord Chancellor was surprised to find that Blair had no appreciation that abolishing the role of Lord Chancellor required “most careful preparation and primary legislation”.

The two men met again on June 9. Blair revealed that he was planning to transfer the responsibilities of the Lord Chancellor’s Department to a Secretary of the State in the House of Commons, who would have been Peter Hain. Irvine warned the Prime Minister that what was being proposed was a “botched job”.

The following day, the two men met again. Irvine handed the Prime Minister a note which said, again, “the whole process has been botched, with poor advice to you and no involvement of me or Hayden” – a reference to Irvine’s Permanent Secretary. Even so, Irvine told Blair he would have been willing to help create a Ministry of Justice and bow out on its completion.

On June 11, Irvine submitted a formal Minute to the Prime Minister in which he said Blair’s latest plan would “hold the Government up to ridicule and make my continuing in office a transparent sham”. Irvine put forward an alternative proposal under which Irvine would have stayed in office until the following summer, by when the government could have legislated for a new Supreme Court, Judicial Appointments Commission and so on.

But Blair disagreed, sacking Irvine on June 12. The constitutional chaos that followed has taken six years to resolve.

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