In the news: Lord Butler

February 6, 2004

Robin Butler, master of University College, Oxford, and newly appointed chair of the inquiry into prewar intelligence on Iraq, is better known for his long tenure as a civil servant under Conservative governments than for his one-year stint under Labour.

But 1998 may turn out to have been a crucial year for Lord Butler. It was his last year as head of the Civil Service, a year he saw in the Labour government and formed a good relationship with Tony Blair.

Indeed, while the influence of Oxford's chancellor Lord Jenkins of Hillhead on Mr Blair has been well documented, particularly his championing of tuition fees, Lord Butler's influence has tended to be overlooked. In a debate on the underfunding of universities in 1999, Lord Baker noted: "It was interesting that two of the peers who spoke in the debate, Roy Jenkins and Robin Butler, both have access to Tony Blair's ear. In education, that is the most important ear."

Lord Butler is now charged with undertaking one of the most politically sensitive inquiries of Labour's seven years in power.

His surprise appointment has already drawn fire from the press. In particular, his handling of the affairs involving Tory MPs Jonathan Aitken and Neil Hamilton has surfaced once again. In both cases, he is widely regarded as having been too trusting of MPs - to his detriment.

Lord Butler was a scholarship boy at Harrow, going on to study at University College, Oxford, before heading for the Civil Service in 1961.

He joined the Treasury where he served as private secretary to the financial secretary in 1964 and secretary of the budget committee from 1965 to 1969.

He was private secretary to Edward Heath and Harold Wilson. Between 1982 and 1985, he was principal private secretary to Margaret Thatcher. In 1988, he was appointed secretary to the cabinet and head of the home Civil Service. He was a member of the royal commission on reform of the House of Lords and chairs the governors of Dulwich College, in London.

Claire Sanders

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