Special report

As his Cardiff legal aid bombshell confirmed, Lord Irvine has never been afraid of upsetting people. Mike Yuille and John Malpas profile the career of the roofers son who climbed the ladder of law

Lawyers should not have been taken aback by the radical nature of Lord Irvines reform blueprint: his history shows he is not afraid of staging the odd revolution or two.

A self-confidence bordering on arrogance might just lead to his downfall.

In 1981 he led a breakaway team of 10 barristers from his chambers in Harcourt Buildings to set up a new chambers. Such antics are still frowned upon in the Inns of Court. Sixteen years ago they were unheard of.

Today that set, now at 11 Kings Bench Walk, lies at the heart of the legal establishment boasting the double first of spawning a Lord Chancellor and a Prime Minister Tony Blair was among the young Turks defecting with Lord Irvine.

Now, with Blairs firm backing, Lord Irvine has embarked on another adventure the most radical shake-up of the legal profession since the war.

Most of the reforms he announced at the Solicitors Annual Conference but not before they had received the Downing Street spin treatment the day before had been conceived by his Tory predecessor, Lord Mackay.

But one key element, the substitution of conditional fees for legal aid for most civil actions, was truly radical, if not downright reckless.

The proposal took the profession completely by surprise.

Most lawyers were counting on the fact that deep down Lord Irvine was a small C conservative. After all, just a few days before dropping his Cardiff bombshell the Lord Chancellor had shown his colours by unceremoniously ditching Labours long-standing pledge to set up an independent judicial appointments commission.

With Lord Irvine, nothing is ever straightforward.

One explanation for the judicial appointments climbdown which bitterly disappointed the Association of Women Barristers is that it was an exercise in political expediency.

If Lord Irvine stands any chance of pushing through his legal aid and civil justice reforms he needs first to win a few friends among the judges.

There is disagreement over whether he possesses a sufficient level of political acumen. The gaffes he has committed since becoming Lord Chancellor suggest that he does not possess it or, if he does, he chooses not to deploy it. Others, however, claim that it is impossible to achieve a position of such influence without possessing formidable political instincts.

But whatever the extent of his political nous, there can be no question about the level of his ambition.

He was born on 23 June 1940 in Inverness, the son of a roof slater and a waitress although one acquaintance says his working-class background is greatly exaggerated, and that his parents were in fact quite well-to-do.

His Labour connections were forged as an undergraduate at Glasgow University, where he befriended Labours late leader John Smith and joined the Labour Party. After gaining a first-class honours degree at Cambridge, he was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple in 1967 at the relatively late age of 27. He took silk quickly, after 11 years. And although he ended up as predominantly a commercial specialist, he started off as an employment and public law expert.

But throughout his highly successful professional career he was steadily consolidating his Labour connections.

Although he was unsuccessful in his single attempt to gain a parliamentary seat for Labour, he won favour with the party by deploying his considerable legal skills for its benefit most notably representing Labour in a series of legal actions against Militant. In 1987 a grateful Neil Kinnock made him a peer.

In the Lords he assisted Lord Mishcon as a front-bench spokesman on legal and home affairs although in 1990 Lord Mishcon admitted to The Lawyer: Hes not often there because hes a very busy lawyer.

Then he became shadow Lord Chancellor, but he continued to practise as a full-time barrister and rarely gave interviews.

It is perhaps a sign of his self-confidence that he allowed the frenetic Paul Boateng the Labour Partys legal affairs spokesman in the run-up to the election free rein to draw up Labours legal policy, presumably safe in the knowledge that Boateng would be shunted onto another department once Labour was in power.

The Access to Justice policy paper wasnt worth the paper it was written on, says one political insider. Everybody knew that Irvine would be calling the shots after the election.

And indeed he did. He is one of the most politically powerful Lord Chancellors in modern times.

He remains a close confidant of his former pupil and is a key insider on policy alongside Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, minister without portfolio Peter Mandelson, and press secretary Alastair Campbell. On a u140,655 salary, he is also the highest-paid cabinet member.

He is also on seven of the 19 cabinet committees, chairing the one on Queens speeches and future legislation, and two new ones: on devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions, and on incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

By contrast, his predecessor Lord Mackay sat on only three, and chaired none.

Lord Kingsland, the new Tory shadow Lord Chancellor known until recently as Christopher Prout QC, described Lord Irvine as having the political clout of Lord Hailsham and the reforming zeal of Lord Gardiner, who was behind, among other things, the Law Commission and Race Relations Act.

I cant think of another Lord Chancellor who has had as much power since the War, says Kingsland.

No doubt that is why he has rarely been out of the limelight since the election.

The decision in June although not his own to refurbish his official residence in the Palace of Westminster for some u400,000 created a minor storm.

Then he hijacked the House of Lords debate on court fees by haranguing fat cat lawyers.

This amounted to an open invitation to the media to brand him a hypocrite Irvines own earnings while a successful Silk easily topped u500,000 a year, allowing him to own a large home in the Highlands, an impressive collection of paintings at his London home, and a permanent place among the Tuscany set.

One long-standing acquaintance comments that the episode perfectly illustrates Lord Irvines character.

In chambers he was something of a despot he was always operated on the principle do as I say, not as I do.

Most recently he cocked a snook at the Law Society and allowed Downing Street to release the details of his Solicitors Annual Conference speech the day before the conference.

It was a monumental snub which also antagonised the national medias legal correspondents who were furious that, while they were kicking their heels in Cardiff, such an important piece of news was given to the lobby correspondents who knew little about legal aid.

Edward Garnier QC MP, Tory spokesman for the Lord Chancellors Department, predicts that Labour will increasingly find him arrogant, pompous, and distant.

One tale doing the rounds among Westminster gossips is that Lord Irvine has a civil servant to peel his oranges for him, so beneath him is the task.

But admirers dismiss this view, praising instead his direct manner and inability to suffer fools gladly. One Law Lord said he had a jovial side, while his old colleague James Goudie QC insists that he is a tower of strength if anyone in chambers had a personal problem, he would always put himself out to help.

As the Government prepares to embark on an ambitious and potentially hazardous programme of constitutional and legal reform, Lord Irvine will need to deploy all these qualities to the full if he is to survive.

Most politicians accept the need to work constantly to maintain as wide a base of support as possible Lord Irvine, however, seems content to make enemies.