David Wolfson QC, Lord Wolfson of Tredegar, grew up in Liverpool. He is a Liverpool fan and when we meet, Liverpool has just won the FA Cup. When I ask what he was doing on Saturday afternoon, Cup Final day, the answer strikes a rich vein. ‘I didn’t watch. As observant Jews we were observing Shabbat.’ Is he deeply religious? ‘[Lord] Jonathan Sacks put it well when he said, “When it comes to religion, by some miracle of cognitive geometry, everybody thinks they’re in the middle of the line.”’

Wolfson is a top commercial advocate at One Essex Court and, until his prominent resignation in April over ‘Partygate’ – where he stated that the ‘scale, context and nature’ of the government’s COVID breaches were ‘inconsistent with the rule of law’ – Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice.

‘My father was a leader in the Liverpool Jewish community. I attended King David School, a state school founded by the community with a mix of Jews and non-Jews. The diversity was formative for me. When made a life peer on becoming a minister I took “of Tredegar” as my territorial designation because that was where we started in the UK as immigrants. Father’s family had come over to Tredegar from Polish Ukraine in the 19th century.

‘People know the Hebrew Bible says “Love your neighbour as yourself” – only once, and it’s often relatively easy because your neighbour is usually quite like you. On the other hand, 36 times does it tell you to love or welcome the stranger – and it has to give a reason, because it’s harder to do: “Love the stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Great-grandfather was naturalised (we found his papers in the National Archive) and converted his Hebrew name into English: “Aaron son of Wolf” became “Aaron Wolfson”. But it wasn’t all good. Great-uncle Jack was born in the middle of an anti-Jewish riot in the town in 1911. He was known as “Jack the Riot Baby”, the first member of the family to be given a title.’ Nearly all family members who stayed behind in Eastern Europe were killed in the Holocaust.

‘Judaism offers a vast treasure trove. There is its concern with the here and now. You must be part of the vibrant debate to be part of the religion.’ He tells a story from the Talmud about a rabbi who was in a minority of one in a doctrinal argument with other rabbis. So he appealed to Almighty God, who called down that he agreed with the lone rabbi. ‘The point was that, although proved right on the point of doctrine, because he removed himself from the argument and appealed heavenwards, he was excommunicated. As lawyer and politician I value debate and I recognise that things can turn on small differences. An observant Jew may not use a light switch during Shabbat but pre-programming of light switches is permitted. If you can deal with that at the age of five, the intricacies of a synthetic collateralised debt obligation will hold few terrors!

‘Now in public service I recognise the fragile support on which societies rest, foundations called the rule of law, respect for minorities, debating civilly those with whom you disagree, calling out racism.’

He avoids fuelling publicity around his resignation. ‘Lawyers are more attuned to the rule of law. Observing the law is all the more important, if you passed or propounded that law. God told Moses to speak to the rock in the desert and it would pour out water; instead he struck it with his staff. As punishment for his disobedience he lost the opportunity to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. Too huge a penalty for a rather trivial breach? No. Because he was their leader. You might say “Lots of people broke the COVID rules” but it was the PM who was responsible for the rules and who instructed everybody else to follow them.’

After being on the front bench most days with a wonderful ministerial brief including prisons and the passage of the Police and Crime Bill, was it a wrench to leave government?

‘I did enjoy my job, creating policy in the department, shaping the future, Parliamentary debating. But that’s why the point of principle was important for me, why I felt compelled by my professional and ministerial obligations to resign. The political wheel turns. I was quick to get over it. What’s the most important symbol in government? Big Ben? The Mace? No, it’s the removal van that appears outside No 10 on the morning after a PM has lost a general election. It symbolises the peaceful transfer of power.

‘Similarly, when I was appointed to government at the end of 2020, I had to acclimatise quickly. I had done some work as a policy wonk for the party, including on Brexit with the Society of Conservative Lawyers, but the invitation to join government came out of the blue. The government doesn’t have a Lords’ majority, so you need to persuade people, and the first question is: to whom does the House listen?’ There followed a list headed by Lord Pannick QC and several former top judges.

‘In advocacy, persuading the judge is Step 2. Step 1 is getting the judge to understand your case. In the Lords, Step 1 is explaining the government’s position, that we understand the fundamentals, the independence of the judiciary, the need to follow treaties, the rule of law. Only then can we go to Step 2. Successful speakers treat the House as somewhere between a seminar and a dinner party with intelligent guests. Be on top of your material; don’t talk down to people; a light touch takes you a long way; include occasional jokes – mine are rarely unscripted. When I sit down I want to feel that, whether they support me or not, people are thinking, “Wolfson knows what he is talking about. I understand the point he is making.”’

At the time of A levels and university Wolfson’s father was a solicitor (later a judge) – the great Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly, was a grateful client – and his mother a law lecturer at further education colleges. Was law an inevitable choice?

‘I went through a stage of Anything But Law. I fancied becoming an electrical engineer and started A levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry. My school didn’t have Cambridge connections, so I wrote to ten Cambridge colleges asking if I could visit them over the Christmas vacation. By the time of my visits I had to tell them that I had decided to switch my A levels to Latin, History and Hebrew. They must have thought “here’s a mixed up kid”. But I enjoyed those A levels and got a place at Selwyn College to read Aramaic, Hebrew and Syriac. My Aramaic was already pretty decent and my Hebrew very good, so at the end of my first year exams my director of studies told me that he thought I had achieved the highest grade-to-work ratio in the whole university! I was lucky enough to be allowed to do a four year degree: two years of ancient languages and then two of law.

‘I didn’t know if I was good enough for the Bar. I had turned up at Cambridge thinking everybody there would be brilliant, and I thought the same about the Bar. People were also saying the Bar was going to die. My supervisor, John Hopkins, was incredibly supportive. He told me I was good enough and that people had been predicting the death of the Bar for the last 20 years. I owe him a lot.’

After call in 1992 Wolfson spent five years at what is now 3 Verulam Buildings (‘I loved it’) and then transferred to One Essex Court, taking silk in 2009. ‘Its founder, Sam Stamler QC, was a friend of a friend of my father; he advised and helped me. I didn’t apply for pupillage there because I didn’t want people to say “he got in because he knew Sam”. For me, One Essex Court is an extension of family, it’s meritocratic, composed of people of all sorts of backgrounds, and set up by people most of whom came from the wrong side of the tracks, the opposite of an establishment set.’

Was it hard to make decisions as a minister? ‘Not really. At the Bar I think I am known for working hard, carrying a big case load; the clients know I will always give them a view; they are paying for my opinion, not “this is very difficult”; by definition it’s difficult or they wouldn’t be coming to me. For the last ten years I was doing more non-contentious work: advising on restructuring, for example, is not about what happened in the past but about what we do now.

‘I have always been at the intersection of law and commerce; as minister it was the intersection of law and politics. Maybe I’m not good at law at all! Lord Grabiner, Head of our Chambers, divides members into Lawyers and Traders. I’ve always been a Trader, I think. I enjoy law, debate, argument. I am less bothered by what the answer is or ought to be. I never wanted to be a judge. One of my favourite experiences was arguing that cases which I’d won were wrongly decided – but that’s what advocacy is about for me. Don’t personalise the advocate with the case being argued. Get real – sometimes you have to argue a bad case. We are all professionals, doing our job.’

As a silk he often gets to construct the team. ‘I like junior counsel who argue with me. That’s how I get the case into my head. It’s the dialectical approach of the Talmudic study hall at a Yeshiva, where you see – and hear! – students argue noisily together in pairs.’

Advice to those starting out? ‘Take any opportunity that comes to you. I went to the Bar because I didn’t want to kick myself if I didn’t. Ditto when I accepted the offer to become a minister. Grab the opportunity and then work out how you are going to fit everything else around it.’

He has now returned to practice. ‘The diary has filled quickly. I am enjoying it as much as I used to – perhaps even more. I love the Bar, the Commercial Court, international arbitration. The quality of people is so high: Bar, solicitors, judges. But I was also appointed to the Lords to give public service. I will continue to serve, particularly on issues such as justice, the legal system and the rule of law.’