On the same day that one young man was stunned by a chunk of
Buckingham Palace dropping on his head, a senior member of the
Government was discomfited to find part of the Palace of Westminster
falling on his.
If ever there was a public figure apparently crying out for some
soothing PR advice, it is the Lord Chancellor, who was this week grilled
by a Parliamentary committee on the costly and much satirised
refurbishment of his official residence.
Lord Irvine of Lairg, for all the intellectual qualities he brings to
the job, has none of the professional politician’s skill at
His long overdue public defence of the refurbishment was robust enough,
but even in that he proved himself embarrassingly prone to laying banana
skins under his own feet.
In a withering put down, he suggested that the pounds 300 rolls of
wallpaper used were of a far superior, longer lasting grade than
’something down at a DIY store which might collapse after a year or so’.
This kind of remark, which would cause no more than a titter in a
courtroom, is inevitably amplified by the megaphone of the media. Sure
enough, the following day’s papers carried the expected outrage of
wallpaper manufacturers and retailers.
In some ways Irvine is right to regard all of this as ’a storm in a
teacup’; it will blow itself out in due course. But such rows have a
habit of permanently colouring political reputations if they are not
He may well regard the pounds 650,000 refurbishment of a state apartment
as perfectly proper and unremarkable. The revelation, courtesy of some
plasterwork collapsing during an investiture ceremony, that over pounds
5 million was spent on maintaining Buckingham Palace last year may or
may not help his case.
But his apparent inability to see that the row is damaging to him and to
the Government is a serious defect, and is likely to prolong the
Irvine’s public relations troubles have sparked suggestions that he is
shortly to have a new director of communications installed in the form
of Downing Street deputy press secretary Allan Percival, thus sidelining
his department’s existing head of information, Sheila Thompson.
While Percival has a reputation as a safe pair of hands, his appointment
may be addressing the wrong problem. All the skilful PR advice in the
world will not work if you do not heed it, and the signs are that the
Lord Chancellor has not yet seen the need to do so. And, in public
relations terms, wallpapering over the cracks will not stop the ceiling
from falling in.