Westminster Watch - May 2014

In his last column, Toby Craig reports on an action-packed month in Westminster and the deal with the criminal Bar.

If a week is a long time in politics, then four years in Westminster can seem an eternity. Having penned WW for almost that long, this column shall be my 46th and my last. More on that later; but there have been few months as action-packed as this one, so it is as good as any on which to exit. A budget, TV debates, a cabinet resignation and finally, a breakthrough on legal aid and that’s before we get to the House of Lords’ 155-page report on soft power. Never let it be said WW scrimps on the detail.

But first things first; after months of unpleasant wrangling, the legal aid deadlock was finally broken as the MOJ agreed to suspend AGFS cuts until after the General Election. The agreement, which has been covered comprehensively elsewhere, also sees the Criminal Bar Association suspend its ‘no-returns’ policy and direct action. Of course, there is more to it than that, and it is fair to say that the ‘deal’ in the absence of a more appropriate expression, aroused significant controversy, leading to a CBA ballot, which ultimately backed the agreement by a measure of two to one. There was no particular sense of triumphalism, but the greatest victor seemed to be common sense. With a number of important reviews under way, there is a tangible opportunity for the profession to work with the Government to find savings and efficiencies. These may well mitigate the Government’s choice to cut fees so savagely and in such a manner that lasting damage to the justice system would have been unavoidable.

Watching the pennies

The budget was a political triumph for George Osborne, who wrestled the initiative away from a resurgent Opposition, most notably with the popular move to give people greater control of their pension pot in retirement.

Ed Miliband’s poor response (apparently he had been expecting the Chancellor to reel off a list of proposals earlier speculated on twitter and failed properly to adapt when he was duly disappointed) did nothing to help his cause. The central division, which the Chancellor laid out effectively, was that the Government trusted people with their own money and the Opposition did not. It’s a strong line and it took Labour some time to signal its support for the pensions change. On top of all of that, a growing and improving economy (albeit making slower progress than hoped) can only augur well for Osborne.

Third place play-off

The televised debates between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage generated more heat than light. In truth, it felt more like a third place play-off than a championship contest. Both convincingly ‘won’ by the UKIP leader, the European elections will provide a meaningful indication of how much of a difference the two contests have had on the voting public. WW wonders whether all this publicity might ultimately backfire for UKIP, as the ease with which Farage was seen to brush the Deputy Prime Minister to one side makes it less, rather than more, likely that the Prime Minister would be willing to debate him before the General Election. The Deputy Prime Minister must be scratching his head and wondering where it all went so badly wrong.

Miller Time

If the Tories thought they were back on track, they were quickly derailed by erstwhile Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, who finally resigned after over a week of critical headlines. Was it the finding of the Parliamentary watchdog that she had over-claimed mortgage payments (which she promptly paid back) which eventually did for her? Was it her perfunctory and mean-spirited 32-second apology to the House? Was it a hostile media extracting revenge for her role in Leveson? Perhaps a little of all of these things, but it brought back the sorry saga of the expenses scandal, for which none of her colleagues will be thankful. Replaced by Sajid Javid, despite warm words from the Prime Minister, it is unlikely that Ms Miller will be rushed back into Government. Perhaps if she’d taken a leaf out of Mark Harper’s book and resigned promptly and with a minimum of fuss, she would not have become the ‘distraction’ which she cited as the eventual cause of her departure. In any event, the Chancellor will have been most unamused it sucked the oxygen out of the good news from the IMF that the UK will be the fastest growing economy in the G7 in 2014.

Britain’s place in the world

Whilst the day to day pragmatism of dealing with Government sometimes supersedes loftier principles, it is worth just noting the 155-page report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s influence, published after some 10 months of work. It makes abundantly clear that the rule of law and our legal history remains a striking influence on the world stage. A timely reminder as we look closely at our domestic arrangements for access to justice.

All things come to an end

So after countless bad predictions, worse puns and, I hope, a healthy sense of perspective, my time on WW comes to an end. I will shortly leave the Bar Council and step down from Counsel’s editorial board to take up a new role outside of the law. Whilst the turmoil of LASPO and criminal legal aid reforms sometimes leave us battle weary, the enormous contribution which this profession makes to the fabric of society, the economy and the rule of law all around the world, makes it one with which I have always been enormously proud to be associated. There are those who will always feel the Bar Council could do more to make its voice heard in Westminster and in the media. For those who take that view, I hope they will get more involved and make their own contribution to advance the profession’s cause. The Bar will be all the richer for it.

My thanks to Sally McCleery and David Wurtzel for keeping me vaguely honest and tempering some of my wilder instincts, and to my former partner in crime, Charles Hale QC. And most of all, my sincere thanks to all of you who have been and are still reading. It has been a pleasure.

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