‘The text of the trade and co-operation agreement between the UK and the EU came out on Christmas Eve 2020. Parliament was asked to pass the Bill implementing it on 30 December. I had to read and understand it and then – together with a great team of other SLL [Society of Labour Lawyers] volunteers – prepare a brief for Rachel Reeves over Christmas so she could lead for Labour in the debate on the Bill.’

This is George Peretz KC, Co-Chair of the Business and Trade Group of the SLL. ‘One of our roles is to help the Parliamentary Party with the complex legislation that is thrown at them. Shadow Cabinet Ministers are pleased to listen to anybody with knowledge and willingness to help, and help from lawyers used to reading legislation and understanding its consequences – sometimes unintended ones – is particularly welcome.’

His career as a former government lawyer who later returned to practise in chambers and served on the Attorney General’s panels has clearly helped. ‘You get practice in walking into a complicated regime, getting to the heart of it and working out what it will mean in practice.’ He and his Group have recently advised on Bills on Subsidy Control [the UK version of State Aid], the Internal Market and the Northern Ireland Protocol. ‘We also worked on the Retained EU Law Bill. Anybody who has been a government lawyer will understand the deep problems with what that Act has done in terms of increasing legal uncertainty.’

Peretz is ‘more on the Denis Healey wing of Labour’. He has been a member of the Party since school, although he ‘left over Iraq, rejoined around 2010 and then briefly left again around Corbyn; which I suppose all shows that I am pretty much in the mainstream of the party.’

For his day job, practising from Monckton Chambers, he won’t claim any more than that he is ‘one of’ the leading State Aid/Subsidy Control silks: ‘It’s so hard to tell, because so little comes to court.’ He is a Bencher at Middle Temple.

Peretz was born to a Civil Service family, his father at the Treasury, his mother in Employment and later Work and Pensions. ‘There was regular Whitehall gossip round the dinner table.’ He attended a London comprehensive school that had just transitioned from grammar status, which may explain why his A-Levels included Greek – ‘a favourite’ – along with History, French and Maths. ‘History and Plato drew me towards PPE at Oxford. I was lucky enough to have Andrew [now Lord] Adonis as a tutor on modern British government: he was brilliant on Whitehall, the House of Lords and local government. I don’t regret studying PPE rather than law: especially if you end up like me doing public law, it’s a great academic background to have.’

Why law? ‘I was always thinking of law, encouraged by my godmother, a partner at what is now Hogan Lovells. I enjoyed placements with City firms, but in the end I opted for the Bar. I had discovered I was quite good at public speaking. I had joined the Oxford Union, entered the freshers’ debating competition and found myself on the winning team. My debating partner later became a judge. I was good enough to hold up my end. The other winning team included Michael Gove. My advocacy was of a somewhat different style from his. Jokes weren’t quite my thing, but I was perhaps better on the argument.

‘I enjoyed the law conversion course enormously: a good course, good teachers, stimulating students, several of whom are now High Court judges or higher. I did well in constitutional and administrative law; also to my astonishment land law. But I never did EU, competition law or tax. I had to pick these up on the job.’

The young Peretz got pupillage with a scholarship in commercial chambers. ‘But at the end of pupillage – 1991 – I wasn’t kept on; I was told, perhaps to spare my feelings, that an economic downturn had caused a dip in Chambers’ work. I cast about a bit, couldn’t find anything, then saw an advert for the Office of Fair Trading [OFT, now Competition & Markets Authority]. I drew on the economics I had learnt doing PPE, and got the job. I did more interesting work for the OFT than I could have done anywhere at the Bar at that age. Cases that are routine for competition authorities are usually very important to the companies concerned, so I would be dealing directly with partners in City firms and sometimes silks. One case I was in charge of was the ready mixed concrete cartel – a saga that involved 13 firms and went all the way up to the Lords; there was also a huge first instance hearing. That was while I was still in my 20s. I also advised on various draft Bills and was involved in cases before the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

‘After a time, I started thinking about a return to advocacy. Almost everybody I had instructed was from Monckton, the leading EU chambers, so I asked in 1997 if they were interested. I got a reasonable offer: six months and see how it goes. I had no front line advocacy experience, so I did a few knockabout cases – I still remember the facts of my first one, to do with trespass to land, and the joy of winning it. But I had a lot of experience of competition law, and that was my main bread and butter even though at the time very few cases went to court. After a couple of years I won a place on the government panels and started working with Christopher Vajda [later the last UK judge at the ECJ]. He led me in loads of competition, EU and VAT cases in the Noughties and I learnt a huge amount from him. Apart from Christopher, the silk who led me most often was Sir Jeremy Lever, who effectively taught me State Aid law in one long case before the EU courts. On the first round of the case my main job was to hold the glue and scissors while Jeremy drafted in his beautiful longhand and then – literally – cut and paste the text. By the second time around I got two or three whole sentences into the submission; by the end I hope I was contributing something reasonably substantial.

‘On the government panels you get everything thrown at you.’ His practice developed organically. ‘My VAT practice began with a few cases on the interface with competition law but grew into more mainstream VAT work – knockabout cases then more difficult legal argument. As I got more senior I had all sorts of other areas of EU law thrown at me. One great thing about panel work is getting to do big cases against silks, which when you win is very good for the CV. My private work is competition/subsidy control and regulation, VAT, pharmaceuticals, customs and trade remedies. I like keeping a reasonably broad practice. When I took silk in 2015 I automatically came off the panel but I am on the Welsh government panel and still do occasional UK government work: it’s a credit to our system that the government uses barristers of all political views and none to represent it. I’ve also been acting for the European Commission in the European courts, including one long-running saga that should come to an end in the ECJ later this year. Sadly, that stream of interesting work has probably come to an end for me; but generally Brexit, along with the complex rules relating to retained EU law and the new subsidy control regime, has generated lots of novel legal issues that in turn generate litigation. I like to say that my practice used to be at home in EU law but now I’m finding shelter in its smoking ruins. And as I have been called to the Bar of Ireland – which has been fun and interesting in itself – I am still able to do cases in the ECJ.’

Advice to those starting out? ‘Entry to the Bar is very competitive. So have a Plan B – mine was to be a solicitor, or to try for government service. And you can always try again once you have built up some real-life experience. But once you get into chambers you will find a supportive network. My experience is that senior people are always willing to help, particularly with ethical or handling problems. The Bar can be a lonely profession, especially when doing a big case on your own. Don’t isolate yourself.

‘More barristers are on Twitter [X] these days, as I am.’ His many other activities include writing for newspapers, appearing on the radio and giving evidence to Parliamentary Committees. ‘It’s difficult to get Twitter right unless you are reasonably confident and have a thick skin; and frankly you get a lot less unpleasantness if you are white and male. But I believe barristers, if they feel up to it, should get out and explain legal issues to the wider public – there is so much confusion and misdirection around, and the areas of law I deal with are important as well interesting. If you follow the right people you can also learn a lot, and there are such things as good Twitter discussions! But on Twitter I think it’s important to be open about my politics: the legal areas on which I comment are all enmeshed in politics, and no matter how hard you try to be objective you can’t separate the two.’

And in a Labour government, what would he like to see? ‘There will be huge challenges everywhere, particularly the economy. I’m especially interested in improving the inadequate EU trade deal negotiated by Johnson. That’s going to be hard not least because we need to convince the EU that changing it is in their interests as well as ours. And the Brown Commission was absolutely right to say we have to strengthen local government: weak and under-resourced local government is a major cause of much of our political and economic dysfunction. There’s a lot of thinking going on in the Labour Party on those issues, and lawyers have much to contribute: I hope to play my part.’