NS Interview - Charlie Falconer

''Tony Blair will lead the party into the next election on the basis that he will run the full term,

It can't be easy being Charlie Falconer. He is Scottish. He is unelected. And he is a close friend of Tony Blair's. Still, he wears his burdens lightly: "The way I have been judged in the past and will be judged in the future has not been on the basis of my nationality or my former flatmates," he says. As for being an appointed peer: "I accept it would be different if I were elected. But the job I am doing could not be done as an MP."

That job, of Lord Chancellor, he is determined to abolish. Despite a series of setbacks in recent months, Falconer insists constitutional reforms are proceeding, just at a slower pace. Abolition of the right to sit in parliament for the remaining 92 hereditary peers has been shelved while the government finally works on a coherent plan for the House of Lords. That is likely to revolve around an indirectly but wholly elected chamber.

The proposals will feature in Labour's next manifesto and will be given an early slot in the next parliamentary timetable. "The history of Lords reform is that it has always taken longer than people thought. You can rarely do major reform of a second chamber unless you do it at the beginning of a parliament." He appears less exercised about its composition than about the need to circumscribe its powers. No longer should a government's legislative programme "be determined by the amount of time it takes matters to get through the Lords".

Still, Falconer says lessons have been learned by the way ministers have tried to introduce change. Similar mistakes were made as he and Blair, almost overnight, hatched their plot to abolish the 1,400-year-old post of Lord Chancellor. Now that the Lords has forced him to lay out his plans in a special select committee, Falconer is doing his best to co-operate. He turns up dutifully twice a week to negotiate the details. The deal is that they reach an agreement by 24 June, and Falconer says he wants the legislation to have passed both houses by next February. A few months later the Lord Chancellor will be no more, a Judicial Appointments Commission will appoint a new Supreme Court, and the separation of executive and judiciary will be complete. Falconer himself will be plain old Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, with no wigs and no silly hats and eventually no woolsacks to sit on.

One of the concessions he is being forced to make is to give the commission more discretion and the government less in appointing judges. But he is adamant that all sides are now signed up to the principle of the changes, including Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, who disparaged the "cheerful chappie" for trying to steamroller the changes.

He deploys a classic Falconerism, a piece of linguistic jocularity to acknowledge a serious problem. "You can easily identify more seamless ways in which the original announcement could have been made." Since then, he says, he and Woolf have kissed and made up. Both, he says, are agreed on the need to increase the independence of judges. "We both believe it is not remotely defensible any more that you have a judge in the cabinet. We both agree it is not remotely defensible any more that a cabinet minister ought to be head of the judiciary."

The day job dealt with, I turn to Falconer's other purpose - presenting Blair's case. What, I wonder, is the current condition of the government? "Strong. Compare it with other governments seven years on. We are in a good condition. There will inevitably be people complaining about the decisions made, particularly [with] a government that is prepared to be bold and reformist, which we have been."

Bold and reformist might not be the adjectives that spring to everyone's mind, but - with comparisons with Margaret Thatcher in vogue - Falconer insists Blair has changed Britain more fundamentally than he is given credit for. "Put aside the myths, look at the overall texture of the country. It is now much, much more a country where people are saying, 'Yes, I now accept that the economy is doing well; yes, now I accept that the government is seeking to make the public services provide a reasonable standard for all.' It is a different feel to how it was in the Tory years."

We come to the inevitable Blair question. How long has the boss got? Falconer should know. I remind the confidant-in-chief that he was reported to be the source of a particular recent bout of stories suggesting that the Prime Minister would, to coin a phrase, run and run. "It is not for me to comment one way or the other in relation to the source of stories," he says. Off-the-record evolves into on-the-record. "As far as the basic proposition is concerned, I believe that Tony Blair will lead the party into the next election on the basis that he will run the full term. That is the view we all take."

To which I respond: "You would not put any money on him going before?" "No, I would not."

Falconer could not reasonably answer this in any other way. But there is a quiet calm in his voice. Time and again, while others fall curiously silent, Fal-coner does the business for Blair.

What about Gordon Brown? According to Falconer's logic, Blair will not hand over the reins before 2009-2010. Will Brown still be around? "I think we should talk about the current government rather than some future one," comes the reply. Is Brown therefore reconciled to his fate? "He is as committed to the success of Tony's government as everybody else in the government is."

On Europe, Falconer shows both sides of the Blair coin. The referendum on the EU constitution is, he says, "eminently win-nable". He acknowledges that governments, even when they are popular, can and have lost such plebiscites, but whatever happens on this one: "I believe that we will win it."

The euro is a different matter. Falconer betrays an uncharacteristic lack of confidence. I strain to make it easy for him. Would Britain join the single currency in the lifetime of this Labour government? After all, we could be talking as far off as 2010. "I don't know," he responds. "There are a whole variety of variables in that question." Ponder that word he used at the beginning, "bold", think back to 1997 and ask yourself: this Labour government nowhere near the euro after more than a decade?

Falconer's cheerleading skills have their limits. Even he struggles to paint Iraq in a positive light, but he has a go. Nobody, he says, ever suggested it would be easy. Everyone recognised that in the build-up to the transfer of sovereignty on 30 June there would be "growing political and violent dissent". All the problems, he says, have to be put in the context of "the progress that is being made in the rebuilding of the economy". He cites the sale of oil and the restoration of "irrigation arrangements".

Did he ever wish the invasion had never happened? "It did happen. I believe it was the right thing to do. We've now got to make sure that there is a rebuilt and recovered Iraq." I ask about George W Bush. Bush, he offers, happens to be president of the United States. Any British prime minister has to deal with the president. The relationship is critical.

Is there a George Bush problem? "A responsible government must deal on good terms with the president of the USA. The Prime Minister has got to keep the relationship close. That's what he's done.

"We've made our decision in relation to Iraq. We've now got to work with the US and the rest of the world to recover Iraq." Do I detect a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the task?

As we wrap up our conversation in the rarefied surroundings of the Lords, Blair and Brown are launching Labour's local election campaign at a hall in Leeds. Falconer accepts that next month's elections will be "difficult" and that turnout is likely to be pitifully low. The biggest challenge, he says, is to improve people's "felt experience" of jobs and the public services, as opposed to the experience ascribed to them in the media.

"An important obligation of left-of-centre politicians is to ensure that we remain connected with that group in the electorate which is becoming less involved in political life, people who aren't engaged in single-issue politics, who aren't taking to the streets to demonstrate. The great danger is that it has become easier for the well-off to become engaged, leaving a disenfranchised group who aren't writing to their MP, who aren't connecting. You end up with a pressure-group-driven, well-to-do sort of politics, with voting numbers going down because people in the poorer sections think there's nothing in it for them."

Another example, perhaps, of "where America leads, Britain follows".