Election 97: The Contenders

The Key Player

Lord Irvine of Lairg

A virtual certainty to be the next Lord Chancellor if Labour triumphs, Lairg has the respect of the legal community.

Lord Irvine was pupil master to Tony Blair and his future wife Cherie in 1976-77. A talented QC and head of 11 King's Bench Walk, he has never hid the fact he has an open line to Tony Blair's political ear.

Married to the former wife of Labour chief whip Donald Dewar, Lord Irvine has recently dampened down speculation that there is animosity between the two men. A more interesting battle might be his dealings with the more radical outbursts of Labour's Paul Boateng, who is set to be a minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Lord Irvine is against capping legal aid spending, but will be working in a fiscally tight environment with little or no room for budget growth.

In the past, he has suggested legal aid be extended to tribunal cases and its eligibility widened, so he may find himself at odds with both the Treasury and a hostile press.

Legal aid practioners will be waiting with baited breath to see how legal reform pans out if Labour wins. In the past Lord Irvine has warned that the voluntary sector will be a more popular candidate for extra resources than private firms and barristers, but recently he has been more conciliatory.

He has also suggested top silks may find less legal aid money coming into their pockets and has not ruled out monitoring judges' performances.

Lord Irvine is also likely to be closely involved in the constitutional issues surrounding devolution in Scotland and the incorporation of the European Con- vention on Human Rights into domestic law. Then, of course, there is Lord Woolf's report. Lord Irvine has proposed a joint review of the reform of legal aid and the civil justice system.

If Labour wins, Lord Irvine, who until now has been the consummate back room dealer, faces a public baptism of fire.

The Challenger

Lord Alexander of Weedon

Created a Life Peer in 1988, the QC, former chairman of the Bar Council and NatWest Group chairman, is tipped to be the next Lord Chancellor if the Conservatives win.

He certainly displays some characteristic Tory traits. As chairman of the civil liberties group Justice, for example, he argued that there was a feeling among the public that the criminal justice system was “too weighted in favour of the defence”. His strong support for alternative dispute resolution and the use of the courts as a measure of last resort also have a familiar ring.

Said to be driven and charming, the 60-year-old is never afraid of speaking out and had a successful and colourful career at the Bar – most notably when he acted for another Lord, Jeffrey Archer, in a libel case, and for the Government in the Spycatcher case.

Other contenders to take over from the retiring Lord Mackay include Lord Fraser of Carmyllie, a Department of Trade minister and former Scottish Lord Advocate, and Sir Patrick Mayhew QC, the Attorney General.

The Twins

Michael Howard and Jack Straw

It's not always easy to tell the current Home Secretary and his fellow barrister and Labour opponent apart. Howard's tough talking policy style has earned him the scorn of many in the legal community. Lord Chief Justice Lord Taylor said Howard's proposal for mandatory minimum sentences amounted to a “denial of justice”, and his successor, Lord Bingham, has continued in a similar vein.

Eager to dismiss any suggestion that a Labour government would be soft on crime, Jack Straw, who helped Blair win the party leadership, has fought a policy-matching battle with Howard. If Labour wins, Straw faces implementing those policies in the face of a suspicious and hostile legal community.

The Rebels

Paul Boateng and Gary Streeter

Lawyers have a tendency to turn on the profession when they walk through the portals of Westminster. And Labour's Paul Boateng and Tory Gary Streeter, the contenders for ministerial posts within the Lord Chancellor's Department, are likely to be no exception.

Boateng, for example, has threatened to legislate to force solicitors to conduct pro bono work, unless the Law Society sets up a Bar Council-style pro bono unit. And his suggestion that convicted criminals could be forced to pay back legal aid if convicted, or face extra time in prison, brought a series of stinging rebukes from the left wing of the legal community.

Streeter, the current parliamentary secretary at the LCD, has a similarly abrasive attitude. He promised a clamp-down on over-optimistic barristers' opinions in legal aid cases, and has labelled legally-aided litigants “state-funded Rottweilers”.

The rest

Most speculation surrounds the role of Labour peer Lord Williams of Mostyn QC, who has been simultaneously tipped to be Attorney General, solicitor-general, Leader of the Upper House and Minister for Northern Ireland.

Former National Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty) legal officer and solicitor Harriet Harman is being tipped for the Attorney General post, but she may have to settle for solicitor general if Labour plumps for tradition and appoints a QC. The most likely candidate is the current shadow Attorney General, John Morris.

Much of the Tory legal talent is sitting on a wafer-thin majority. A typical example is 47-year-old solicitor Jonathan Evans, who is tipped as a possible solicitor general, or even higher, if he can hold on to or increase his 130 majority in the Brecon & Radnor seat.