I’m here to see the tax barrister turned campaigner, Jolyon Maugham QC speak. He is sitting at the front of the room, on a raised stage beneath gold chandeliers, looking calm amid the chaos going on around him.
The former Attorney General and hero of Remainers, Dominic Grieve, is apologising to the assembled audience for having to dash off and vote on his amendment, which will shortly inflict a major defeat on the government.
Maugham is left on his own to field questions. His deliberate and slightly musical delivery is instantly familiar to the gathering he is now addressing, organised by Lawyers for a People’s Vote, a group of legal professionals pressing for a second referendum on Brexit.
This is the world the Devereux Chambers tenant now inhabits and it’s clear that his interests in the Brexit debate are far from confined to his professional expertise. ‘As a father of three children,’ he tells the room, ‘I’m desperate for them to enjoy the same opportunities I had.’
The whole event feels a bit more like a campaign rally than a legal briefing. With Maugham, there is definitely a blurring of the lines between his roles, or ‘hats’ as he likes to refer to them.
When we meet at his offices in Middle Temple two days later, I pick this point up with him. He has been criticised in the past for campaigning to tighten up the rules on tax avoidance, while also litigating the loopholes that exist for the benefit of his often wealthy clients. Does he see a conflict there?
‘I accept there’s some tension there, but I don’t think the tension is particularly stark,’ Maugham insists. ‘I can perfectly well say of a piece of behaviour that I don’t think it’s morally attractive, whilst at the same time saying, legally, it works.’
Maugham first rose to prominence in the national media in early 2015 when the debate about so-called ‘non-doms’ – wealthy British residents who avoid paying tax on income from overseas – was at its peak. A general election was coming and Ed Miliband’s Labour Party had pledged to abolish the loophole.
Maugham had already been writing his blog, Waiting for Tax, for two years and it had become the go-to place for people interested in how the tax system, and tax avoidance, really worked.
A number of colleagues at the tax Bar, Maugham tells me, described his decision to get involved in the public debate as ‘the longest career-suicide note in history’ (the reference to left-wing politics probably no accident), anticipating that prospective clients would be wary of instructing him.
But he brushed it off. ‘I still argue four or five cases a year,’ he says. ‘I just took a decision, quite a long time ago, that I was going to use the freedom that I had to pursue other interests as well, and not focus my life on maximising my income.’ Though, he says, he still makes a very comfortable living.
"I am happy to piss off anybody. And that’s important, actually, because there are very few people, very few professions, that have the freedom that the Bar does, to act in that way."
For the past two-and-a-half years, his main other interest has been Brexit. Along with The Good Law Project, the not-for-profit organisation he founded, Maugham has driven the legal debate on the issue since the referendum result.
He was involved in the early stages of the case that became Gina Miller’s successful Supreme Court challenge, forcing the Prime Minister to get approval from Parliament before formally notifying the EU of our departure.
Maugham then took the Electoral Commission to the High Court over what he saw as its inadequate investigation into Vote Leave’s campaign spending. Under pressure, the Commission agreed to look again and eventually referred the matter to the police.
Vote Leave has denied any wrongdoing but Maugham’s stance has led to fierce clashes on social media with the former campaign director, Dominic Cummings (portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the recent Channel 4 drama about the referendum campaign). There is certainly no love lost between the two men.
‘If you don’t care about anything beyond whether you win, if that’s your only metric for success, then absolutely, Dominic Cummings is entitled to be regarded as a great tactician,’ Maugham concedes, somewhat reluctantly. ‘I can recognise Dominic’s contribution in winning that battle and at the same time regard him personally, and the tactics he pursued, as morally deplorable.’
Even as we approach the planned date of our departure from the EU, Maugham is not letting the issue go. He is now in discussions about starting a private prosecution of Vote Leave, after what he sees as unacceptable delays in the investigation. ‘My interest is in securing that our regulatory agencies function as they should and I see a private prosecution, embarrassing the Metropolitan Police Service for its inaction, as being likely the most effective route to ensure that the Met does its job.’
But none of his legal actions or campaigns comes close, in Maugham’s mind, to the victory he achieved in the European Court of Justice in December 2018. In a case brought by Scottish parliamentarian Andy Wightman, five colleagues and Maugham himself, the EU’s highest court ruled that the UK could unilaterally cancel Brexit by withdrawing the Article 50 notification that kicked off the process.
‘The Wightman case, that I promoted and personally, financially underwrote, is the result of several years’ work of mine and, I think, will be the most important thing I ever do in my life. It gives politicians, it gives MPs, should they choose it, a cost-free exit from what I regard as being a profound mistake for the country.’
So is another referendum the solution for those who want to stop Brexit? Maugham doesn’t think so. ‘We can just revoke Article 50,’ he insists. ‘That would be what I’d be pushing for if I was in Parliament.’
As someone who grew up with little, much of Maugham’s work is motivated by, as he puts it, a desire to ‘give a voice to people who need a voice’.
The son of the famous novelist, David Benedictus, he was brought up by his mother in New Zealand and only met – or even knew of – his father when he was 17 years old. Kicked out of the family home after a falling out with his stepfather at 16, Maugham worked as a cleaner before moving to live in a former pit village in the North East of England.
‘I remember very clearly the sense of powerlessness that I had as a child, in what did not feel to me then like a loving home and did not feel to me then like an environment in which I was heard.’ Maugham says he channels that feeling in his work today.
That more ideological area of his work has gone much wider than just Brexit. Last year, Maugham and the Good Law Project took the US technology giant Uber to the Tax Tribunal, arguing that it has avoided paying £1 billion in VAT.
They are also campaigning on unfair work practices, assisting a former intern of the media company Monocle to sue over her low rate of pay and, working with the website Graduate Fog, forcing the huge outsourcing firm Capita to scrap a scheme that imposed a financial penalty on graduates who tried to leave their employment before two years.
A wry smile appears on Maugham’s face as I suggest this may not have made him many friends. ‘I am happy to piss off anybody. And that’s important, actually, because there are very few people, very few professions, that have the freedom that the Bar does, to act in that way.’ He is, he says, only jeopardising his own career.
It’s clear that Maugham cares deeply about the issues he campaigns on. But could there be an ulterior motive? I wonder whether all this might be building up to the launch of a political career.
‘I have considered it,’ Maugham admits. ‘A key member of [Jeremy] Corbyn’s circle was very keen that I should stand as a Labour MP. I ultimately decided against it. It’s not something I presently see in my future but I don’t rule it out.’
It’s a refreshingly direct answer. One thing no one can accuse Jolyon Maugham of is not telling you exactly what he thinks.
Adam Smith @adamtimsmith worked in journalism at the BBC and ITV News for eight years, focusing on Westminster politics. After a year at legal human rights charity Reprieve, he is now studying for his Bar Professional Training Course.