Raised near Banbury on a farm where her father, a life peer, still lives, and herself now living on a smallholding nearby where she keeps sheep and bees, the Attorney General (AG) is well qualified to say, ‘Farming is our root; politics is our job.’

Victoria Prentis KC MP makes history as the first ever AG to have had her career in government legal service.

We talk about her role as principal legal adviser to government, which we have to do while observing the convention prohibiting mention of advice that the AG has given to government, including if she has even been asked for advice. Scottish gender recognition? Northern Ireland protocol? Channel boat crossings? Retained EU law?

The AG role goes back eight centuries. ‘For me, the history is important,’ she says. ‘I’m independent. I have to do unpopular things. That’s the job. It’s very much a constitutional role – traditionally an end of career job. It’s about more than just getting the law right. Of course I like winning but we must observe propriety.’ Can you define it? ‘You recognise it by the sucking of your teeth, the wrinkling of your nose. You think “we could do this but is there a better way for government to do it?”.’

Following call in 1995 she enjoyed a remarkable pupillage, her supervisors being Ian Burnett, now Lord Chief Justice, and Dominic Grieve, a revered future AG. Both are still good friends. It was a special moment for her when she took her oath as the new AG before Sir Ian in Court 4 on 16 November 2022, three weeks into the job. He spoke warmly. Breaking new ground she made a speech in reply. And was it a coincidence that she served Victoria sponge at the reception that followed?

‘At that time Ian did a lot of government work. I met the lawyers [in what is now the Government Legal Department (GLD)], saw what they did and knew within my first week with him that this was what I wanted to do after pupillage. It took ages for government to launch the next recruitment competition. I applied. I passed the board and waited – but no offer came; I accepted a tenancy in a new set; I got married’ – her husband, Sebastian, is now a judge in the Insolvency and Companies Court – ‘and nearly gave up on government; and then a call came in 1997 from the new Deputy Treasury Solicitor – that was you. You said, “We want you to join us; come in for a chat.” I remember swearing at you: “B****y hell, I’ve been waiting ages!” But I dropped everything and was with you in 20 minutes.’

I posted her to litigation. ‘I was a public law litigator for 17 years, working where judicial review actually happens – the Admin Court, Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.’ For many years she ran a large team as part of a job share with another colleague. ‘I’m passionate about job sharing – it’s a strengthening relationship; working with a partner lightens the management burden. One day the then Treasury Solicitor said to us as – unusually – we arrived together for a meeting with him, “It must be serious – you are both here!’’’

She left GLD in 2014, when she was adopted to fight Banbury for the Conservatives, the seat she won in the 2015 general election and has held ever since. She is now ministerially responsible for GLD.

‘I have enormous respect for government lawyers and would always recommend GLD as a career for people with discipline and skill and the confidence to make their point. We could be more dynamic in getting across to the outside world the quality of our work. Our people are motivated more by public service than money, which makes them special. They are interested in law and want to make real people’s lives better. I feel well supported.

‘Being the first AG with GLD experience definitely helps. I can use my background to join things up. I know the people in charge and how departments work together – or sometimes don’t.’ When you know so much is there a temptation to poke and pry? ‘I try not to interfere unnecessarily. But of course the role of the AG does include interfering when things go wrong. In Cabinet I try not to speak unless there is a legal angle. I think I am listened to. The PM believes advice matters, and he has a culture where lawfulness really counts.’ Are you ever blindsided? ‘Things that morph from one position to another are normal. You have to stay alert. Government lawyers are challenged every day and are very inventive: “No, you can’t do that but you can do this.” I do the same.’

Other experiences that have helped form Prentis for the AG role include two years as an agriculture minister, where she took heavy legislation through the House. ‘I loved it. It was very legal. It combined farming and law – my loves – and gave me an opportunity to design a post-Brexit agriculture policy.’ An earlier posting was as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Leader of the House. ‘I gained a thorough grounding in Commons procedure during Brexit.’ And there was a long spell on the Justice Select Committee ‘which gave me a bit more exposure to other parts of the justice system’, relevant to her other role of superintending the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Director of the Serious Fraud Office, with whom ‘I’ve got good relationships.’

The young Victoria (Boswell) was schooled in Banbury and later at Malvern Girls’ College – ‘Victorian, good, academic, very much a girl’s education. I loved English. An alternative career would have been as an English teacher.’ She studied English at Royal Holloway, London. ‘My degree included mediaeval English and mediaeval French. I love talking other languages, which I do very badly, albeit prolifically.’ Her two children are linguists. Then unusually another BA followed, in law at Downing College Cambridge.

‘Constitutional and international law were my favourites. I knew then that they were what got me going.’ Why law? ‘I was one of three sisters. We had endless negotiations. All the women in my family are strong. I had a brilliant teacher at school. She drove us to debating and public speaking competitions – and we won them! By age 16 I knew that law mattered. The M40 had taken a lot of our family farm. I watched Dad and Mum dealing with complicated national planning applications. Dad at the time was the local NFU [National Farmers’ Union] chair. I knew that government could be influenced through law. I knew advocacy was important.’

It was around this time that her father, Tim (now Lord) Boswell, entered Parliament and served in the Major government of the 90s, including, like his daughter, as an agriculture minister. ‘We are both Conservative. I am absolutely sure that people can run their own lives better than government can run it for them (despite my government experience!). I am driven to empower people to seize opportunities for themselves.’

Why the Bar? ‘I was the first lawyer in the family. I had no baggage. I was torn between the advocacy of the Bar and the teamworking of solicitors.’ Advocacy prevailed. ‘I would have applied for a legal traineeship in government had I known about it.’

One topic where Prentis has made an impact publicly and privately is Ukraine. ‘It’s a big deal in our house. My [elder] daughter is studying Russian. She wanted to spend her year abroad in Russia but couldn’t get a visa, so she went to Ukraine in the summer of 2021. I visited. Kyiv was magical; but it became blindingly obvious that war was coming. In December of that year we made her come back. In February 2022 the Russians invaded, and a month later her friend, Vika, fled the shelling and came to stay with us. Since then Vika and my daughter have been bringing over Ukranian families – one hundred plus – to stay with people in the UK, including in our own village, under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, where you don’t just get a bed, you get an advocate to help you at all levels of need: health, housing, employment. It was natural for me to want to be part of this effort. We had eight Ukranians round our table on Christmas Day, five of whom we didn’t know were coming until half an hour beforehand.

‘Since taking office I have worked closely with my friend, Andriy Kostin, the Ukranian Prosecutor General. Andriy’s office has opened files into almost 65,000 alleged international crimes and they are carrying out trials while the conflict continues. That’s totally unprecedented. I liaise closely with Sir Howard Morrison, the UK-appointed Independent Adviser to Andriy and his office. Howard has been training Ukranian judges for these war crimes tribunals. We will continue to play a leading role in supporting the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court into his investigations and in supporting the Court itself by seconding national experts and increasing our funding to it. I also fully support the UK joining a core group of like-minded international partners invited by Ukraine to pursue criminal accountability for Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.’

Now that she is Head of the Bar would she be tempted to get back into court and try out her advocacy? ‘For me being Head of the Bar is a big deal. The Bar is integral to the way we run our justice system. It’s under pressure, particularly criminal defence. The rule of law is predicated on all parts of the profession working properly. I am proud of being an employed barrister. I enjoyed having higher rights when in the GLD. If the right judicial review came along, I’d itch to take it on. But I am aware that the involvement of the AG can unnecessarily politicise a domestic case. Perhaps The Hague would one day be more realistic.’