Westminster Watch

Westminster village begins to recover its equilibrium after the EU vote, grappling with the machinery of change and arrangements to scrutinise Brexit policy

In 1886 the Liberal politician, Joseph Chamberlain is reported to have said: ‘In politics, there is no use in looking beyond the next fortnight.’ 

By the 1960s a week had become a long time in politics according to the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson at a lobby briefing for journalists during the sterling crisis in 1964. In the political world, as elsewhere, time appears to have collapsed, dramatically so in recent years thanks to communications technology which demands rapid responses from politicians to 24/7 rolling news stories and which gives licence to sound-bitten, and often bitter, partisan commentators contributing to what passes for debate in today’s polity. In this febrile atmosphere have we become a more ‘scratchy’ people, increasingly looking for things to fall out over rather than fall in about?

This column began an extended summer break just before the EU Referendum, when the confident expectations of liberal centrists were robustly defeated by the majority vote to leave and the village of Westminster went into convulsion. David Cameron promptly announced his intention to stand down, triggering a five-way leadership challenge. After four of the candidates had either withdrawn or been eliminated by their parliamentary colleagues, Cameron advised the Queen to appoint Theresa May MP as PM, thus ending three weeks of political vacuum at Westminster and sparing Tory party members in the country from having their say. Cameron’s decision in mid-September to resign immediately from the Commons drew a line under his 15-year career at Westminster following the loss of his final and biggest gamble.

No one can have been surprised that former Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove MP should have been a casualty of Mrs May’s cabinet purge but many will have been disappointed that this reforming Lord Chancellor did not fulfill the promise of his one nation justice speech to the Legatum Institute last year. Yet some were surprised that May chose 41-year-old Liz Truss MP as Justice Secretary, the first female Lord Chancellor in the thousand-year history of the office. As the third non-lawyer in succession to have been appointed to this ancient office, Truss’s appointment seems to have confirmed a trend of promoting young, politically ambitious members of the Commons instead of a senior lawyer at the summit of their career in, or moving towards, the House of Lords.

In her speech at the swearing in ceremony in the Lord Chief Justice’s court on a hot afternoon at the end of July, the former environment secretary pledged to respect the rule of law, defend the independence of the judiciary and provide adequate resources for the courts. So far so good. As the Ministry of Justice is not a ring-fenced department but one which has suffered successive waves of substantial cuts in money and manpower, and been required by the Treasury to impose heavy restrictions on legal aid, the new Lord Chancellor and her all-new ministerial colleagues will have their work cut out in delivering a ‘justice for everyone’ prospectus.

The Lord Chancellor has some acquaintance with the challenges facing her department based on her experience as a member both of the Commons Justice Committee (which she joined on entering Parliament in 2010) and of the Bill Committee which scrutinised the LASPO Bill. Plainly the new minister of state, Sir Oliver Heald QC MP (whose responsibilities include legal aid and legal services) will play an important role in informing and shaping the difficult judgments to be made by the MoJ team collectively on issues left behind by Gove. They include a British Bill of Rights, a Tory manifesto commitment, and the package of proposals for enhancing the quality of criminal advocacy, including new funding proposals by a Bar Council Working Group to replace the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme.

Unsurprisingly as a result of the Brexit vote, the Lord Chancellor appears very keen to promote English legal services on a wider international stage, including the work of the Bar in underpinning London’s strength as the leading international dispute resolution centre. ‘Our footprint has always been global’ was the message from the Advocate General for Scotland, Lord Keen QC who led the UK’s delegation at the IBA Conference in Washington DC in September, in which the Chairman of the Bar participated.

As Whitehall is slowly grappling with the machinery of government changes that are needed to resource policy development in these areas, including ramping up the Government Legal Department’s capacity to provide departments with advice on the complex issues ministers now face, Westminster is beginning to address arrangements for scrutiny of Brexit policy. Two new committees are being established: the Committee on Exiting the European Union, which will be chaired by a member of the Labour Party (Hilary Benn MP has declared his interest) and the International Trade Committee, to be chaired by a member of the SNP. Arrangements are expected to be confirmed by the Speaker towards the end of October.

As this issue goes to press, the annual party conference season moves into a higher gear. These once great tribal gatherings of the faithful nowadays provide fewer opportunities for rank and file members to assemble and meet to shape party policy. The steep prices now charged for attendance at what have become increasingly marketing conventions have no doubt deterred some. To the bemused inhabitants of the cities in which the conferences take place, in secure zones insulated from the real world, they must seem like parallel universes where the political classes meet to perform strange rites with NGOs, charities and corporate lobbyists. The mingling and mixing at fringe meetings in overheated rooms, supplied with copious quantities of warm wine and curling sandwiches, takes place alongside the big set-piece, choreographed performances which are intended to reach outside audiences as much as conference goers in seeking to define their political brand.

The Lib Dems provide more policy engagement for members than the other parties. Their conference in Brighton included consideration of a detailed motion on access to justice, reflecting a number of issues on which the Bar Council has been lobbying all the main political parties, for several years. Lord Jonathan Marks QC, Lib Dem Justice Spokesperson, called for ‘an urgent review into the effect of cuts to the legal aid budget and increased court fees’.

Labour’s Conference at Liverpool, preceded by the announcement of the leadership election, will be more interesting than usual, not least for the 172 members of the parliamentary Labour Party who declared they had no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn MP’s leadership, and thereby prompted the search for a successor to Jezza. Understanding Labour’s leftward drifting agenda generally, and its justice agenda in particular, is important for the Bar. The commission of inquiry led by former Justice Minister, Lord Bach, which Corbyn set up with support from the Fabian Society, was tasked with looking at the future of legal aid but it appears to have ground to a halt, without having reported.

The conference season wraps up with the Conservatives in Birmingham. To look beyond the next fortnight at what will happen there would be foolhardy. But one can confidently say that the Brexit decision, which marked the end of a political era of liberal ascendancy, requires politicians to look at the UK’s position in the new global order. The challenge for the parties is to look seriously at our political and constitutional arrangements, to ensure that mechanisms are in place in Westminster and Whitehall to enable us to embark on a new journey, one to which the Bar has much to contribute.

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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.