Meet the thorn in Blair's red rose

Profile: Robert Marshall-andrews QC. IT is difficult to describe MP Robert Marshall-Andrews QC except, perhaps, as a brilliant maverick. Elizabeth Davidson talks to Robert Marshall-Andrews, the silk-turned-backbench MP renowned for challenging New Labour's legal policies and style of government.

He is the man about whom the Lord Chancellor's number two, Geoff Hoon, joked within six months of his election, after a Commons clash: “He's finished off his career at the Bar and now he's ruined his political career.”

Hoon was referring to a series of “rebel” acts committed by Marshall-Andrews since his 1997 election victory, when he won his seat by a majority of 5,000. This may seem like an unfortunate start for a man who went part time in a lucrative practice as a commercial fraud silk at 4 Paper Buildings to become a backbench MP serving the Kent constituency of Medway.

But Marshall-Andrews relishes his role as a thorn in the side of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, almost carving out a niche career in doing so. Last year The Spectator presented him with its Member to Watch award.

He has been prominent in criticising government policy on justice issues. Legal aid lawyers will fondly remember his ferocious commons attacks last year on the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine's plans to cut legal aid in the wake of conditional fees.

His vociferous challenge to what would lead to “an avalanche of litigation and a bonanza of work into the legal profession” certainly got him noticed in New Labour. But while other lawyer-MPs advised the Government on reform, Marshall-Andrews says: “Nobody asked me.”

A staunch Labour supporter, he has been a member of the party for 30 years. Marshall-Andrews claims he has not changed, but says he “used to be regarded as moderate and reforming but I'm now seen as quite left wing”.

Opinion is divided on whether Marshall-Andrews is a maverick politician. Commentators agree his independent viewpoint stems mainly from the fact he has nothing to lose. His fraud practice has made him independently wealthy and he has no desire for a cabinet post. Asked about his political ambitions, the 54-year-old replies simply that he is “ambitious to be a good backbencher”.

Society of Labour Lawyers chair Joel Bennathan describes Marshall-Andrews as “traditional, old-fashioned, right wing Labour, who believes in helping the poor by raising taxes”, and says he is “free to speak his mind because there's not much the whips can threaten him with”.

As such he is in a position to cause a great deal of fuss, and could spark problems for Labour in the future. The reason for his unpopularity with the control-conscious New Labour hierarchy is not hard to pin down.

He claims never to have spoken to Lord Irvine. But there is the rumour of an after-dinner joke he told shortly before the election, that whether or not there was a new government there would be no change in the personality of the Lord Chancellor. The allegory played on Scottish cultural stereotypes.

He has also sided with rebel MP Austin Mitchell in calling for the replacement of the Lord Chancellor's role with an elected minister of justice.

He has criticised the Millennium Dome and voted against the Government's Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Bill.

Audaciously, he slammed media mogul Rupert Murdoch's bid for Manchester United in a Tribune article this month. And he really hit a New Labour nerve after the “cash for contacts” scandal involving Labour-connected lobbyist Derek Draper – Marshall-Andrews proposed a five-year quarantine period between working as a political aide and becoming a lobbyist.

This year he has also set up a dining club – the Old Testament Prophets – for MPs concerned about parliamentary democracy. The name was coined by Blair himself, who said in a speech that the Labour movement could be traced back to the time of the “Old Testament prophets”.

Marshall-Andrews is a rebel MP with a cause – apparently the lofty ideas of objectivity, justice and fairness. He is concerned about constitutional issues and with eliminating any possibilities of corruption.

He wants the House of Lords to give way to an elected second chamber, and especially objects to having the word “lords” in the title. “I don't mind what the new chamber is called as long as it is something that doesn't smack of feudal patronage,” he says.

During his outspoken tirades against Murdoch's influence on Tony Blair he tried to amend the Competition Bill, which allows Murdoch to keep his dominance in newspapers and TV.

This “fat cat” lawyer has called for the introduction of a 60 per cent income tax bracket, and agrees “lawyers are overpaid”, conceding that the legal aid debate has “cast an unsympathetic light on legal aid lawyers who do a tremendous job”.

Asked what he thought of Lord Irvine's “fat cat” comments, he lapses into mysterious allegories involving St Paul on the road to Damascus. Asked about Lord Irvine's wallpaper, he muses on pyramids and pharaohs, on perceptions and the reasons for them. He believes the wallpaper debate was a metaphor for public distaste for the immense power given to an unelected figure.

Marshall-Andrews is passionate about the importance of the “independently minded backbencher” able to give “genuine constructive dissent”.

This is to guard against what he calls the “tyranny of the enlightened”, the enlightened being the Labour party, which he believes is in danger of having unchecked control since the fall of the Tories.

Despite his calls for more power for the backbencher, he was criticised shortly after last May's election for abandoning his constituents for the luxurious confines of the Island Shangri-La hotel when he was acting for the Hong Kong government.

Marshall-Andrews claims it is important for an MP to keep up his day job in order to keep in touch with real life. “Politics is not about professional politicians who leave university to work as researchers and for lobby groups before entering parliament,” he comments.

When asked about the daily fax sent by Labour HQ to every government MP, instructing them on their opinions for the day's events, he blushes and loyally claims he “has no problem with the fax”, which he says does not always arrive daily and is intended to inform MPs and unify the party.

Above all, Marshall-Andrews supports the adversarial system of law and of politics and claims he “loves the arena” – hence his suitability for the role of rebel.

In person, he is leonine, flamboyant, charming and surrounded by an aura of wealth.

He was born in London in 1944 and educated at Mill Hill School and the University of Bristol, where he wore long hair, bohemian clothes and acted in the theatre. He is married to Gill, a freelance childcare education consultant who chairs the anti-handgun campaign group, the Gun Control Network.

He has two children and took silk in 1987. His interests extend to the environment – he is a founder and trustee of the George Adamson Wildlife Trust, which runs the Mkomazi Game Reserve in Tanzania. He plays down his range of interests, claiming the law was “one of the few things I could do – I'm no scientist”, and admitting one of his hobbies is “scribbling”.

In fact, he published Palace of Wisdom – a historical novel set in 17th century Florence – with Penguin in the UK in 1989. It was also published in France and the US and became a best seller in Germany.

Political opponents had better watch out. The rebellious Medway MP has almost finished a second book, Palace of Justice – a satire on law and the political system, due to be published by Penguin next year.

Given his rebellious nature, his liking of the spotlight and his incorrigible nature, it should be a juicy read.