Westminster Watch

Mark Hatcher on the General Election, the new Lord Chancellor, members of the Bar elected to the Commons and the first all-Tory meeting of the Cabinet for 18 years

We were seduced into believing there would be a hung Parliament. 

Months of extensive opinion polling showed Labour and Conservatives neck and neck with 34% of the vote for both parties with little movement during the campaign. But the BBC’s exit poll and two other surveys conducted after votes had been cast showed how wrong the pollsters could be with the Conservatives winning 330 seats, comfortably ahead of Labour with 232. It was reminiscent of 1992 when (after 13 years of government and a deep recession) John Major defied predictions of a hung parliament and won an overall majority of 21. Once again the “shy Tory factor” appears to have eluded the pollsters’ calculations.

Labour have been punished for failing to inspire the aspirational vote and for running a campaign that spoke more of Old Labour than the natural development of the Blair project inaugurated in 1997. With only eight members returned to the Commons, the Lib Dems paid a heavy price for having joined in the Conservative-led Coalition. Formed in 2010 in the grip of an economic crisis, the mood of the times was encapsulated in the note, written to his self-confessed shame by Liam Byrne, the departing Treasury Chief Secretary, which greeted his successor: “I am afraid there is no more money.”

With 56 seats in the Commons the Scottish National Party have become the third largest party at Westminster. The further fragmentation of the UK political landscape has been achieved by the fact that four parties now lead the four countries which (currently) comprise the United Kingdom: the Conservatives in England, the SNP in Scotland, Labour in Wales and the DUP in Northern Ireland. The UK is no longer a unitary state.

What can we expect of the Conservatives? At the first all-Tory meeting of the Cabinet for 18 years, David Cameron said the new Government would be different from its predecessor. It would not have to “trade away” policies and would therefore be more accountable. Waving a copy of the Conservative manifesto (Strong Leadership, A Clear Economic Plan, A Brighter, More Secure Future), the Prime Minister said the Government had a mandate to deliver all of it.

The Tories’ undiluted pledges, in the manifesto and set out subsequently, include running a budget surplus by 2018, investing an additional £8bn a year in the NHS, managing £12bn welfare cuts, introducing legislation guaranteeing no rise in income tax rates, VAT or National Insurance before 2020, holding a referendum on EU membership by 2017, introducing “English votes for English laws”, giving English MPs a veto over matters only affecting England, devolving further power to Scotland (and increasing some powers of the Welsh Assembly), scrapping the Human Rights Act and introducing a British Bill of Rights. Add to that the retention of Trident, building a new fleet of nuclear submarines, extending the right-to-buy scheme to housing association tenants in England and holding a free vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act and the ambition of the new Administration is clear.

At the Ministry of Justice, the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove MP, will have a challenge to “bring rights home” by repealing Labour’s Human Rights Act. Ironically his predecessor Jack Straw had used the same expression in favour of the HRA to enable human rights issues to be settled in British courts without having to spend years getting a decision from the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The complexity of fulfilling this manifesto commitment, and the challenges of its parliamentary handling, are beginning to be appreciated. The new Leader of the House of Commons, Chris Grayling MP, can expect this issue to run and run. In the Lords, where the Conservatives do not have a majority, Peers on all sides can expect to have a field day.

Four out of six of the MoJ ministerial team remain in place from the previous Administration. Mike Penning is Minister of State for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims. Lord Faulks QC remains as Minister of State for Civil Justice and Legal Policy. The two Parliamentary Secretaries, Shailesh Vara and Andrew Selous, continue their responsibilities for courts and legal aid, and for prisons respectively. Two newcomers to the team are Carol Dinenage (with an equalities brief) and former solicitor and karate black-belt, Dominic Raab.

Jeremy Wright QC remains as Attorney General and attends Cabinet by invitation. Robert Buckland QC continues as Solicitor General. Other appointments in Whitehall to note include Francis Maude, a former barrister, as Minister for Trade and Investment at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (a portfolio that is shared with the Foreign Office). His role will be relevant to the Bar’s interests in promoting its services (and values) overseas. In the same department, Anna Soubry (a former criminal practitioner) has been promoted from the Ministry of Defence to Minister of State with a brief for small businesses. At the Treasury, Harriet Baldwin’s appointment as Economic Secretary with a City brief will be of interest to the Chancery and commercial Bar. The family Bar will be interested in the appointment of former FLBA member, Edward Timpson, as Minister of State for Children and Families at the Department for Education.

Twenty-eight members of the Bar were elected to the Commons: 22 Conservatives and 6 Labour. Among the new Conservative intake are Victoria Atkins (Louth and Horncastle), James Berry (Kingston and Surbiton), Suella Fernandez (Fareham), Lucy Frazer (South East Cambridgeshire) and Victoria Prentis (Banbury). Former DPP, Sir Keir Starmer QC joins the Labour benches (in whose constituency of St Pancras and Holborn the offices of the Bar Council are situated). Following Sadiq Khan’s decision to concentrate on becoming Mayor of London, former Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer QC leads the Opposition justice team. Lord (Willy) Bach continues as Shadow Attorney General.

There were a number of casualties among barristers standing as parliamentary candidates, notably Lib Dem Minister of State at the Ministry of Justice, Simon Hughes, who lost Bermondsey to Labour after 32 years’ service. Others included former Chair of the Young Barristers’ Committee, David Nicholls (standing as a Conservative in Clywd South), Sarah Sackman (standing for Labour in Finchley and Golders Green) and Catherine Atkinson (standing for Labour in Erewash, where family barrister and former PPS to the Attorney General, Jessica Lee, had been MP before deciding to stand down to return to practice). Simon Reevell also lost his seat in the marginal constituency of Dewsbury.

Unless the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 is repealed, the new Parliament will continue until 2020. With a smaller majority than the one which resulted in John Major’s surprise victory in 1992, David Cameron can expect the euphoria of his first 100 days in office to become tempered by the reality of political life. During his term of office, the number of Conservative seats will inevitably reduce with defections to other parties, by-election defeats and possible suspensions or the withdrawal of the Tory whip for colleagues who vote against the Government on key policy pledges. Four years after the election of the Major Government the Conservatives had a single-seat majority and they were in a minority going into the 1997 General Election. Who knows where we will be in May 2020. What is certain is that the 2015 General Election was a game changer. The UK is waking up to the fact that it has become a quasi-federal state of different nationalities.

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Mark Hatcher

Mark Hatcher is Special Adviser to the Chairman of the Bar. After working at the Law Commission and in the House of Lords, he became Head of Global Public Affairs at PwC. He is a Bencher of Middle Temple, as well as being a priest. He is Reader of the Temple.