The next Cardinal Wolsey?

Helena Kennedy

Recently dubbed 'the most powerful woman in Britain', Helena Kennedy has been many things: top QC, political activist, Baroness, wife, mother. Shaun Pye discovers her latest ambition – to become the first Lady Chancellor.

When Helena Kennedy became a Queen's Counsel in 1991, her daughter Clio, then aged four, was particularly thrilled.

According to Kennedy's close friend Mark Stephens, senior partner at Stephens Innocent, Clio assumed that as her mum was being made the Queen, she would automatically become a princess.

Clio need not have worried about her status. Seven years on and her mother is more powerful than the Queen. In fact Helena Kennedy QC is, officially, the most powerful woman in Britain according to research published in the Sunday Times by psychologist Dr Terry Kellard.

Kennedy, or if we are being formal, Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws, is the leading light of New Labour's aristocracy. She has the ear of good friend Cherie Booth QC (third most powerful woman) and her husband Tony (the most powerful person overall).

She uses her elevated position in the Lords (she has also recently been appointed chair of the British Council) to fight the good fight, most notably on human rights. But friends say Kennedy is driven by more than just altruism. Her rise from a house in south Glasgow to the House of Lords is down to fierce personal ambition.

One well-placed source says she has stated more than once a desire to become Lord Chancellor, who coincidentally is rated the ninth most powerful person in Britain.

"She would love to be the first woman Lord Chancellor," he says. "Actually it would be Lady Chancellor. Possibly even Ms Chancellor."

She would certainly be more popular than incumbent Derry Irvine. It is impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about her – adjectives range from "charming" to "extremely charming".

Christine Kings, practice manager at Kennedy's Doughty Street chambers, says a female student considering a career at the Bar once wrote to Kennedy asking for advice. Kennedy wrote a lengthy reply and included a cheque for £200. Kings points out: "She simply wanted to help more women to become barristers."

Stephens paints Kennedy as living three lives – political, professional and, equally important, family; she has said that come hell or high water she always makes it home to ensure her children's homework is up to scratch. Of her domestic life, Stephens says: "Just picture a kitchen full of pet rabbits and gerbils."

The more you hear of Kennedy the more she sounds like a Walt Disney caricature with the blue bird of happiness singing chirpily on her shoulder.

Take her first meeting with husband Ian. In 1984 she went to hospital with a pain in her face, anxious that a big trial was only days away. Doctor Ian told her she was suffering from sinusitus before asking her out for dinner.

Surely the ITV mini-series cannot be far away.

It is intriguing that this "charming" woman has been putting the fear of God into barristers, politicians and assorted establishment figures for the past 30 years.

She arrived in London to study for the Bar aged 18, having turned down a chance to study English at university. Her profile was far from the norm. Her father was a despatch handler for a Glasgow newspaper, her mother a housewife.

In the early 1970s, chambers would routinely tell female applicants that they were not in the business of running "a hen-house". And Kennedy says she had her bottom patted on many occasions. "But being brought up in Glasgow as a lippy girl, I didn't have any difficulty dealing with that," she has said.

In fact, she hit back by writing a blunt account of how awful the Bar was in The Bar On Trial.

Kennedy got round the problem of unsympathetic chambers by helping to set up Garden Court. She has since been instrumental in the formation of those darling civic liberty sets Tooks Court and Doughty Street.

Her rise to prominence rests on several factors – primarily her skill as a criminal advocate. One colleague comments: "She is not the most academic of people. But her success has a lot to do with her personality – she is a good speaker and excellent at presentation."

Dan Brennan QC, vice-chair of the Bar, says that during the past three decades Kennedy has become "the voice of the Bar's conscience". Among a wide variety of cases, she has acted for the women of Greenham Common and for Paul Hill – one of the Guildford Four.

Recently she has helped revolutionise legal attitudes towards victims of domestic violence. Fellow Doughty Street tenant Edward Fitzgerald QC ventures that she has a 100 per cent success rate in arguing the "battered woman syndrome defence".

More than any other barrister, Kennedy has used the media to build her profile. A colleague says she was easily the first to fully embrace television. Fitzgerald says that she wields influence partly because she is the one lawyer "people recognise on the bus".

Politically, one colleague says that Kennedy has moved from being "simply left" – in the 1970s she was a member of the Communist Party – to now being "simply Labour". Friends say her active involvement in Labour party politics is relatively recent. She helped organise a big fund-raising night out for fellow lawyers at the River Cafe just before the last election.

Her enthusiasm derives partly from her close personal friendship with Labour's former first couple, the Kinnocks, and subsequently the Blairs. But with Labour's commitment to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights, there is also now an obvious tie-in with the agenda of Charter 88, the lobby group that campaigned for a Bill of Rights. A group which Kennedy coincidentally happened to head at one time.

As one source puts it: "Her step onto the political platform was not so much pre-meditated – it just happened."

Is there potential for conflict with her political masters? A friend says: "If the plan was to create a Labour mouthpiece in the Lords, the plan was misconceived. She's very independent-minded." Another source says: "I've yet to find a Labour Party criminal lawyer who really agrees with what [Labour] are doing."

Well-placed sources say that she was personally responsible for amendments to Lord Irvine's consultation on legal aid reform. For example, in an early speech in the Lords she argued that legal aid had to remain for civil actions by prisoners against the police because it would be incredibly hard to fund them with conditional fees.

Lord Irvine appeared to take notice and the relevant changes were made.

There have also been more overt political clashes. In August, she rubbished Blair's own arguments about the impact of changes in Scottish higher education funding.

She then abstained in the subsequent trouncing of the plans by the Lords.

Consequently, the Labour whips are said to have called in the most powerful woman in Britain for a dressing down for her failure to toe the party line.

As to Kennedy QC becoming Lord Chancellor, Brennan dismisses the suggestion. And not because she isn't up to the job: "She's just got a much greater source of work doing what she does at the minute. It's a daft idea," he says.

Others feel a move elsewhere – the Home Office, perhaps – would be more likely and more in line with her desire to enhance the rights of women and the family.

For now Kennedy is keeping her own counsel on this and other matters.

"It's just as well," comments one colleague, "you would not have got a word in edgeways."