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Monday, 19 February, 2001, 14:14 GMT
Lord Irvine: A 'blunder' too far?
Lord Irvine
Lord Irvine is Tony Blair's former mentor
The Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine has been described by the media in the past as "a blunderer".

While that description may be unfair, Lord Irvine has certainly had his fair share of controversies and headlines.

Perhaps the most memorable "blunder" was his decision, early in Labour's term of office, to approve a 650,000 redecoration bill for his official residence.

The decision to use wallpaper, costing 350 per roll, caused a furore in the press and among MPs, not all of them on the opposition benches.

But there have been other "blunders".

Power behind the throne?

Lord Irvine is generally regarded as the most powerful lord chancellor in centuries.

But he did little to help his cause when he compared himself to Cardinal Wolsey, the notorious power behind Henry VIII's throne in the 16th Century, or when he patronisingly referred to the prime minister as "Young Blair".

He has been accused of cronyism and sexual discrimination in the way he makes staff appointments within his department, though this is strongly denied.

He was publicly rebuked by Downing Street in 1998 over a suggestion that the government was considering a privacy law to gag the press.

Nevertheless, he remains a close confidant and family friend of Tony Blair not least because he was the prime minister's mentor when he was a barrister and is godfather to one of Mr Blair's sons.

A resigning issue?

But critics suggest that this latest "blunder" is Lord Irvine's most serious to date. The Tories say it is a blunder too far and the lord chancellor should resign.

His opponents say Lord Irvine's decision to seek donations for the Labour Party from solicitors and barristers jeopardises the independence of his office.

Lord Irvine's residence
Decoration of the Lord Chancellor's residence caused a furore
As lord chancellor, Lord Irvine is responsible for appointing QCs and judges.

Critics suggest that the solicitors and barristers who were asked to make a donation may feel obliged to do so, since the lord chancellor can effectively make or break their careers.

The lord chancellor's department and the Labour Party insist that Lord Irvine is not guilty of any wrongdoing.

Downing Street has also sought to play down the affair.

They say that Lord Irvine made the request for donations as a senior member of the Labour Party, in the same way as any other minister would.

They add that the lord chancellor does not know the identity of any of the donors or how much they contributed at last week's party.

The controversy has added fuel to the calls for the office of lord chancellor to be overhauled.

The lord chancellor is, in effect, the minister of justice for England and Wales. But, as a peer Lord Irvine is answerable to the Lords and not the Commons.

There is strong support in Westminster for many of the lord chancellor's duties to be transferred to an elected minister answerable to MPs.

Such proposals were made by the Labour Party in its 1992 election manifesto but have fallen by the wayside since the party entered government.

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See also:

19 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Irvine condemned as 'begging boy'
31 Dec 99 | Guide to the UK Government
Lord Chancellor's Department
05 Jul 99 | UK Politics
Lord Irvine keeps his wig
05 Jul 99 | UK Politics
Irvine defends role as judge
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