The Cardinal's sins

In exclusive extracts from his unauthorised biography, Dominic Egan reveals to readers of The Lawyer some of the secrets from the Lord Chancellor's chequered legal career.

In May 1997 Lord Irvine was virtually unknown outside the legal profession. One year later he was the most famous Lord Chancellor of the 20th century. The only problem was, he was known for all the wrong reasons.

Far from achieving his long-held dream of going down in history as one of the great reforming Lord Chancellors, Irvine was seen as a bungler of catastrophic proportions. The newspapers were full not of his reforms, but of Wolsey and the wallpaper.

Journalists could scarcely believe their luck. Here was a senior member of the Cabinet and close friend and confidante of the Prime Minister committing gaffe after gaffe. How, they asked, had such a bungler achieved such high office?

Excuses were duly made. Irvine, his supporters argued, was still finding his feet. He simply needed time to adjust to his new role and his new life in politics.

But anyone who dealt with Irvine during his days at the bar is not in the least surprised that he has struggled since entering the political arena. They could see that Irvine was always going to make enemies. After all, his arrogance, pomposity and excessive aggression had made him enough enemies when he was at the bar.

They could also see that Irvine was always going to be a liability to the Government and the Labour Party when questioned by journalists or a select committee. He had never been good at thinking on his feet in court. The Wolsey and wallpaper fiascos were simply accidents waiting to happen.

A man in a hurry

Irvine took his pupillage at 2 Crown Office Row in the Temple (now Fountain Court Chambers). He managed to make himself so unpopular at the set that when he completed his pupillage, he was not offered a tenancy.

When describing Irvine, "modesty isn't the first word you would think of", says a tenant at Fountain Court Chambers. The reason Irvine was refused a tenancy, this barrister explains with considerable tact, was that "it wasn't thought that he was likely to be a very good team player".

Fortunately for Irvine, he was offered a tenancy in the other chambers at 2 Crown Office Row, the one headed by Morris Finer QC. Joining Finer's set proved a great move for Irvine. Finer, an outstanding barrister with an excellent practice in both commercial and employment work, regularly used Irvine as his junior, kick-starting his career.

Irvine took silk in 1978, only 11 years after being called to the bar. At the time, he was the youngest QC in the country. Perhaps the success went to his head, for it seems that Irvine's thoughts soon began to turn towards taking charge at 2 Crown Office Row. However, several more senior barristers stood in his way, including Michael Sherrard QC, who had led 2 Crown Office Row since the mid-1970s and was showing no signs of retiring or moving onto the bench.

Irvine and Sherrard had never hit it off. A former member of 2 Crown Office Row suggests the two were simply jealous of each other. Irvine coveted Sherrard's position as head of chambers and felt that Sherrard was not doing enough to build up the set. For his part, Sherrard resented the fact that Irvine was the real force within the chambers, getting his own way on most things through a combination of his forceful personality and the support of friends in chambers.

Having made the decision to break away, Irvine and his allies – who included Tony Blair – entered into negotiations with some of the barristers at 2 Hare Court (now Blackstone Chambers) with a view to creating a "super set". These included Anthony Lester QC (now Lord Lester of Herne Hill), Michael Beloff QC and David Pannick QC.

The talks floundered for several reasons, not least because the parties could not agree upon the style in which the new chambers should be managed. Lester's group wanted what he describes as "non-hierarchical, modern management". Irvine, on the other hand, believed that the new set should be based on a more traditional model and should be run by a traditional-style head of chambers – namely himself.

Irvine's group began to discuss the possibility of branching out on their own. Not surprisingly, word of the discussions eventually leaked out. Relationships between the two factions at 2 Crown Office Row remained cordial until Irvine's group, which was only just in the minority, indulged in some Parliamentary-style lobbying with a view to turning themselves into the majority and seizing control of the chambers. However, they had forgotten to seek out the views of one of the older members of chambers and the attempted "putsch" failed.

In 1981 Irvine and nine other barristers including Tony Blair quit 2 Crown Office Row for a few crowded rooms at 1 Harcourt Buildings. Eventually they found a home at 11 King's Bench Walk. In his new kingdom Irvine was a "benevolent despot", says James Goudie QC, now joint head of the chambers with Eldred Tabachnik QC.

Indeed, Irvine's dictatorial ways were often a source of some amusement at 11 King's Bench Walk. He and others were once discussing the Labour Party's plans to reform its voting system in order to introduce the concept of one man, one vote. "That's what we've got here," quipped Goudie, "There's one man and he's got one vote."

That said, Irvine did a fantastic job. Indeed, under Irvine 11 King's Bench Walk became one of the top sets in the country. When founded in 1981, the chambers had just one silk out of a total of ten barristers. When Irvine left in May 1997 there were 10 silks out of 28 barristers.

The Bully

At 11 King's Bench Walk, Irvine chose to focus increasingly on commercial work, enjoying a highly successful and extremely profitable legal career. It would be wrong, however, to assume that he was one of the best barristers in the business. The truth is that Irvine was good, but not great.

Although Irvine could be a highly effective cross-examiner and speech maker, there were clear limits to his advocacy skills. Irvine showed little lightness of touch. One commercial QC remembers: "Derry had a very bullying manner as a cross-examiner. I don't think I ever saw him being very delicate with a witness." Another barrister says: "It wasn't fencing. It was like watching someone trimming a hedge with a sabre. They know what shape they want it to go at and they're damned if it is going to go any other way."

Irvine's style may not have looked subtle, but there was much more to it than mere bravado. Absolutely nothing had been left to chance. Behind each bludgeoning attack lay hours and hours of groundwork, a great deal of it done by his juniors and pupils. Detailed notes had been prepared on every important aspect of the case. Everything had been referenced and cross-referenced. Key documents had been flagged. The course of every cross-examination had been planned in detail.

The final product of such marathon efforts would be a script, or to be more precise, a series of scripts. Whatever the witness said in reply to one of Irvine's questions, one of the scripts had it covered. All Irvine had to do was read the right section of the right script.

Irvine's inflexibility also manifested itself in another way. As an old-fashioned barrister, he retained an old-fashioned attitude towards solicitors. He did not see himself as a member of the team, but as the leader.

It did not matter to Irvine that the solicitor was his client, nor that the solicitor paid the bill at the end of the day. Irvine was the boss and everything had to be done his way. Irvine's style was to keep the solicitor and client "as distant as possible", says one solicitor. "He just doesn't join the team."

Irvine's superior ways are legendary. One barrister remembers bumping into him in Hong Kong in the late 1980s, after Irvine had received his peerage. "Derry was sitting down having tea in the Mandarin Hotel and I came with my solicitor for tea. He went over to Derry and he said: 'Oh Mr Irvine, how nice to see you!' And Derry said: 'Lord Irvine!' It was almost laughable, really. The poor guy was terribly shocked."

Most remarkable of all was Irvine's relationship with his senior clerk. A highly regarded administrator, Philip Monham was effectively Irvine's butler, peeling his oranges, cooking his food and polishing his shoes.

At lunch, Irvine would leave his desk, march past the kitchen next to his room, proceed down two corridors, step into the clerks' room and say one word – "Soup!" He would then turn on his heel and march back to his desk, where, in due course, he would be served by Monham.

The word "please" did not loom large in Irvine's vocabulary, but there was little that Monham would not do for his master. One bemused barrister recalls: "I was in the clerks' room talking to Philip, and Derry put his head around the door and says: "Philip! Boot polish!" At which point, Philip moved as though propelled by the hand of God out of his chair, seamlessly grabbing the boot polish and the cloth. The next thing I see, as I toddle past the door, is Derry with one foot on a chair with Philip polishing his shoes!"

Irvine – Politically Correct is published on 4 November by Mainstream Publishing.