Far away from Westminster on the morning of 12 January under a dull grey sky in Norfolk, a lesser known and largely invisible part of the machinery of government went into operation. David Lidington had an audience of the Queen at Sandringham and delivered up the Great Seal with which he had been entrusted on his appointment as Lord Chancellor just seven months before.
Shortly afterwards the Privy Council met at noon. Eight Cabinet Ministers took the Oath of Office, knelt and kissed the sovereign’s hands, before receiving the Seals of their new appointments following Theresa May’s reshuffle.
Among them was David Gauke, the new Lord Chancellor, the first solicitor believed to have been appointed to this ancient office in over 900 years. As is the custom, the sovereign remained standing so that no one else could sit down, thereby keeping the proceedings brief before lunch. Afterwards Lidington had another audience of the Queen on his appointment as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Theresa May’s new year reboot kicked off with the reshuffle which had been built up well in advance, following Damian Green’s sacking. That was part of the problem because expectations could not be satisfied. The Big Four – Chancellor Philip Hammond, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Home Secretary Amber Rudd and Brexit Secretary David Davis – all remained in place. So did Chris Grayling at Transport although for 30 seconds, according to Central Office’s Twitter account, he was understood to be moving to become Party Chairman. On the day that was supposed to demonstrate a revamped digital campaigning effort by the Tories it was not a promising start.
No 10’s problems appeared to stem from a failure to establish at the outset of the reshuffle whether Jeremy Hunt was prepared to move from Health before he came to see May. She had planned to move Hunt to the Business department. But he had other ideas and became an augmented Secretary of State, for Health and Social Care, with the result that Greg Clark stayed put. May had failed to reassert her authority. She could have made significant moves at a senior level and another opportunity to reshape her Cabinet is unlikely to present itself for some time. It all looked more like a night of the blunt knives with many of the faces at the top of the government looking pale and stale.
Although Lidington’s move from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) will be a loss there in what looked like a sideways move to the Cabinet Office, he will chair a number of Cabinet committees, including the big Brexit ones. Lidington’s unrivalled experience over six years as Minister for Europe at the Foreign Office coupled with his understanding of the House of Commons as a former Leader of the House will equip him very well in this pivotal position right at the centre of the government machine. Lidington ‘does’ detail and understands the practicalities of the business of government. He will appreciate how important it is to apply focus on reaching agreements about justice as a vital connecting issue in the Brexit discussions and not something to be bargained away in the heat of negotiations with Brussels.
Although the major players have remained in place, the reshuffle was fair-sized at middle and junior levels, seeking to refresh the Tories’ talent pipeline. While the Conservatives must stick to their Brexit mantra, they also want this to be a year they show they are about more than leaving the EU. So we can expect a re-focus on domestic policy issues topped by the need to tackle the NHS crisis, housing, school standards and the environment.
Where does Justice fit in? Gauke’s appointment as the sixth Justice Secretary in as many years (he also becomes the third Lord Chancellor in a year) brings to an end a run of four consecutive non-legally qualified MPs to hold this office. He qualified as a solicitor in 1997 and worked for a time at the City law firm MacFarlanes before entering Parliament in 2005. He will bring an understanding of the rule of law and the importance of the independence of the judiciary on which some of his predecessors managed to develop only a tenuous grip in office. As the holder of three ministerial jobs at the Treasury, culminating in his appointment last year as Chief Secretary before becoming briefly Work and Pensions Secretary, Gauke has a strong understanding of the realities of public expenditure constraint. He will need this as he seeks to steer a weakened department which has sustained more than its fair share of cuts in headcount and budget since 2010.
Aside from the impact of Brexit on justice and the legal services sector, Gauke’s immediate priorities at the MoJ will be to deal with the prison crisis (exacerbated by the collapse of Carillion), rebuild relations with the legal profession, oversee the court transformation programme and review the effects of LASPO, which seems to be moving very slowly. The Justice Committee, chaired by Bob Neill, before whom Gauke can expect to appear fairly shortly, has written to the Secretary of State for Justice with a number of helpful suggestions for how the Ministry’s review might be accomplished and set out their expectations of the review methodology. The Justice Committee has underlined the importance of the LASPO review being sufficiently independent to command public confidence by drawing attention to the approach taken by the Scottish government in establishing its own review of legal aid last year. This is a major opportunity for the government, the legal profession and other stakeholders to work together towards rebuilding confidence in access to justice.
The ministerial team at MoJ includes two new faces. Rory Stewart moves across as Minister of State for Justice from a joint post at the Foreign Office and Department for International Development, in which he had considerable expertise, to replace Dominic Raab who has been sent off to Housing. The former Lord Chancellor’s PPS, Lucy Frazer QC has been appointed Parliamentary Under Secretary of State to handle legal aid. Lord Keen QC remains the MoJ’s spokesman in the Lords and looks likely to continue to take an interest in the department’s relations with the profession and in regulation of legal services. He will be heavily involved in taking the EU (Withdrawal) Bill through its Lords’ stages from February through to May when the Bill is expected to return to the Commons for its final ‘ping pong’ stage of consideration of Lords’ amendments.
Whereas the high turnover of Lord Chancellors over the past six years is alarming, the Law Officers have remained settled. The Attorney General (Jeremy Wright QC), who attends Cabinet, and the Solicitor General, Robert Buckland QC were confirmed in their appointments. Their understanding of the Bar and influence on policy development in Whitehall will continue to be important.
Two other appointments in the reshuffle to note are that of Brandon Lewis, who was called to the Bar by Inner Temple and instrumental in May’s leadership campaign. He becomes Chairman of the Conservative Party and is tasked with getting the party battle ready for the next general election (including upping their game in social media) and preparing for the local elections on 3 May. Secondly, Suella Fernandes, a Brexiteer barrister joins the Brexit department as an extra junior Minister.
The reshuffle brought above 50% the proportion of Oxbridge-educated Cabinet ministers and sees more than two-thirds of the government’s top team drawn from seats in southern England. May said the government now looked ‘more like the country it serves’.
Jeremy Corbyn told a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party that the reshuffle was a ‘pointless and lacklustre’ PR stunt. He has made 13 new appointments to his team and continued to ratchet up his grip on the Labour machine. Having spent their earlier careers railing against the party’s elite, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are now firmly Labour’s establishment. And so the merry-go-round goes on.
Mark Hatcher, Special Adviser to the Chairman of the Bar