Counsel to the Cardinal

Robert Mendick meets the ex-Herbert Smith lawyer who is quietly transforming the Lord Chancellor’s image.

He may not want it mentioned, but Garry Hart is the man widely credited with turning around the fortunes of a flailing Lord Chancellor.

When Hart was made special adviser to Lord Irvine 12 months ago, his boss-to-be was the favourite butt of a series of media jibes.

Irvine’s subsequent transformation from tight-wearing dandy with a penchant for flock wallpaper, to pioneering Lord Chancellor steering a ground-breaking law reform Bill through Parliament, has been extraordinary.

And many people believe he has 58-year-old Hart to thank for it.

Hart, on the other hand, refuses to take the credit. It is important, he stresses, not to exaggerate the importance of his role as special adviser.

The week before this interview, he told me he did not want the feature written because he wanted to keep a low profile. When he finally agreed to meet, he spent the first 30 minutes explaining why his role did not merit this coverage.

Hart’s desire to work solely behind the scenes is understandable, bearing in mind the recent negative publicity over certain other government spin doctors.

His appointment, a year ago, itself created an enormous furore, as accusations of cronyism reverberated around Westminster.

Two female solicitors brought a race and sex discrimination case against Lord Irvine for the manner in which he appointed Hart. Because the post was not advertised, the women claimed they were unlawfully deprived of the opportunity to apply for it.

It got worse. Hart is a card-carrying member of the New Labour Party. He is godfather to one of Tony Blair’s children, living not far from the Prime Minister’s old residence in fashionable Islington.

Then it transpired that Hart had made a donation to the Labour Party of more than £5,000. Tory opposition labelled his appointment as “cronyism at the heart of government”.

The special adviser is hurt by the “daft” accusation. “I am stung by this. What you have to do is examine if there is any substance in the charge that somehow or other somebody has been appointed to a post without any talent to fulfil that role.

“I did give money to the Labour Party. But I have also given money to the Almeida Theatre. I have supported a lot of charities and I intend to go on supporting a lot of charities.

“If you believe in something interesting, you have to help it to the best of your ability. It so happened, having had a comfortable life as a result of being a lawyer, I see no difficulty in trying to give money to help the party succeed.

“The suggestion seems to be that I gave money to the Labour Party in order to get a job which forced me to take an 80 per cent pay cut. That is not the mark of cronyism. It is the mark of lunacy.”

For someone who is at pains to point out that he is not a spin doctor, Hart does an awfully good job of convincing me otherwise.

“I do not regard myself as a spin doctor,” he asserts. “I regard myself as an adviser who is there to help him. But the prime purpose of mine is not to spin images, and in my view he does not need spinning in that way because the talent of the person will be seen in the work he is doing.”

It is noticeable in the course of the interview that Hart rarely, if ever, refers to Lord Irvine by name. Instead, he alludes to the Lord Chancellor as “He” or “Him” as though Irvine is some form of divine being.

Maybe that is how Hart views his boss. Certainly, he liberally sprinkles adjectives like “reforming”, “radical” and “challenging” into the conversation.

Hart has an explanation for Lord Irvine’s early problems. “I don’t think he ever got things wrong,” he says. “But it takes a little while for policy to be formulated and put forward in, for example, the Access to Justice Bill, and it is only when you actually see what he has produced that the public, and commentators can begin to form judgements. In the early days he was busily preparing for legal and constitutional reform. I don’t think he got sufficient recognition for what he was seeking to do.

“I have known him for a long time and my admiration for him has increased – rather than decreased – since I have been here.”

Hart sits in his office on the seventh floor of the Lord Chancellor’s Department (LCD). He lounges back on one of two comfortable sofas.

He is a big, jovial, likable man. He wears a pink shirt, through which his stomach bulges ever so slightly, grey trousers and black boots, which are hipper than the kind of footwear you would expect someone so senior in the LCD to wear.

But then, while Hart is Ipswich-born – “I am a working class boy from a working class background. He is a decidedly pro-Islington emigre who strongly defends his N1 address.

“Islington is capable of taking it on the chin just the way Cheam became a household name when Tony Hancock brought it to fame and Peter Sellers brought Balham to public attention,” he says.

“I am certainly not ashamed of living in Islington. It is an extremely useful place to live in for anybody working in the City or Westminster. Since I now travel by public transport, I can travel between Highbury and Islington and Victoria for £1.70, one way.”

Hart’s is a spacious office, piled high with government papers, books and newspapers. His office is a mess, but Hart is delighted to be submerged in government policy and is reading more widely than ever before.

It seems a far cry from the neat and ordered world of the property department he ran at Herbert Smith.

Hart is less equivocal. There are similarities and differences, he says, but he emphasises time and again that he has no regrets in making the switch from what he terms the “City of Wealth” (the Square Mile) to the “City of Political Power” (Westminster).

“In terms of policy there are similarities, but it is much more stimulating and exciting to see the evolution of policy than it is to dissect it after the event. I would say that never for a moment have I regretted leaving a major law firm and coming to do this job. On the contrary, I have found it extremely stimulating and enormous fun.

“The absence of timesheets and billing proformas has been a bonus,” he says.

Another difference is the paperwork, stacked up in all the corners of his office for all to see. “The bulk of paper which arrives each day, throughout the day, is enormous and much bigger than the paperwork in a lawyer’s office. A day away means a small hill of paper to demolish the next day. And there are deadlines all the time, more deadlines than in a lawyer’s office.”

While at Herbert Smith, Hart had many clients. Now, he points out, he has just one – Lord Irvine.

Hart is unremittingly enthusiastic about his job. Just like at Herbert Smith, he says, the Whitehall job is great fun. In his eyes, the civil servants are not the boring, grey creatures the public at large would take them for – they are dedicated workaholics, being paid far less than their City counterparts to work similarly long and irregular hours.

“The year has gone enormously quickly,” says Hart, adding: “Before professionals become completely clapped out, they should find ways of making a contribution in a different way.

“I would say there are many lawyers in the City who are lucky enough to have a career such as I have had, and who have earned enough. I am not one of those who think you have to keep accumulating money until you snuff it – that was never my principle objective.”

Hart is coping with the sudden drop in earnings. “I wouldn’t have said I really notice [the decrease in salary]. I have a wife who is now looking after me. She is a partner at Norton Rose. I am very happy now to be a kept man.” And on he talks.

Two days after the interview, he telephones me to go over some more points – how, for example, he met Nelson Mandela and he could never have done that while at Herbert Smith. And he keeps on talking.

Herbert Smith senior partner Edward Walker-Arnott once described Hart as “the finest communicator in the firm”. It is not hard to see why. He has a remarkably easy and relaxed manner; he likes to joke and even laughs at my own feeble efforts.

Gerald Bland, a partner in the property department at Herbert Smith and a friend of Hart’s for almost 30 years, says: “He is a complete one-off. He has a tremendous combination of legal skills, wit, repartee and bonhomie. It is a magical mix.”

And while Hart will not admit to it, and while he would deny it is spin doctoring, you can see how he may well have managed a behind the scenes transformation of Lord Irvine into a more human, more likable individual.

Only don’t tell him I said that.
Garry Hart
Legal adviser
Lord Chancellor’s Department