Give the Lord Chancellor a break

Edward Garnier QC defends the position of the Lord Chancellor and discusses the unfair criticisism the Lord has attracted. Edward Garnier QC is the Conservative MP for Harborough and shadow attorney general.

The past two weeks have not been kind to the Lord Chancellor. But the same could be said about almost every week the incumbent of that ancient office has been on the Woolsack, although his temporary dislodgement by an irate Earl of Burford at the beginning of the Third Reading of the House of Lords Bill last week will have provided him with some light relief from the burdens of power.

The press has become part-weary and part-Pavlovian in its reporting of the Lord Chancellor's activities. Whenever his name appears in the public eye journalists are required to interweave the catalogue of public relations disasters for which the Lord Chancellor has been responsible into the latest announcement on the selection of judges or QC's.

You cannot read about Lord Irvine of Lairg without being reminded about wallpaper and DIY stores, Cardinal Wolsey and the Lord Chancellor's highly developed sense of humour, or about the recruitment of Garry Hart – employed to stand like a G-Man between the yellow press and the president, but whose employment itself became the stuff of litigation and further unhelpful publicity. It could not, as they say, have happened to a nicer man.

Now we have the publication of two books that add to his troubles, Dominic Egan's biography, Irvine – Politically Incorrect, and the diaries of Lady Richard, the wife of Ivor Richard, sometime Labour leader of the House of Lords and Cabinet colleague of the Lord Chancellor. They add to his troubles not just because of what they tell us about the character of the man and what he has said and done in his private, professional and political life, but because they mention him at all.

The caricature of the Lord Chancellor is so ingrained in the public's mind that no amount of articles, interviews or books about and by Lord Irvine can erase the unfortunate picture we have of him. Nobody is surprised to learn from Dominic Egan that Lord Irvine apparently shouted at his clerk to bring him his lunchtime soup or that he required this saintly retainer to clean his shoes with his master's feet still in them.

Even if those things never happened the public is now conditioned to accept that they probably did. Even if Lady Richard's accounts of her husband's quarrels with his difficult colleague are motivated by a desire to avenge Lord Richard's sacking, the readers of her diaries have been warmed up like a well prepared jury to find for Lord Richard against Lord Irvine.

Of course it's unfair. No one ever said that Lord Irvine's appointment to Lord Chancellor by his former pupil, Tony Blair, was fair. But the Prime Minister made Lord Irvine the Lord Chancellor because after having done great things at the bar by dint of his abilities, his intellect, his drive, ambition, and, it has to be said, by his powers of delegation and his friendship with the Blairs, he was streets ahead of the competition in the ranks of the Labour lawyers. He was, in short, the best and only candidate.

Montgomery and Eisenhower were not given command because they were nice guys but because they were going to ensure that the Allies won the war. Their jobs were secure for as long as they were successful. They were consequently at the top for a good while.

It is said that if an opposition want to confirm a minister's tenure in office they need only table a motion of no confidence and his job is assured. Why should I, a member of the opposition, want to see this Lord Chancellor go? I do not. I think he is doing an excellent job and should be preserved in office so that he can continue to serve his country, his Party, his Prime Minister and his parliamentary colleagues and continue to enjoy their unstinting confidence for a good while yet.