WestminsterWatch - July 2012

A busy week, but now at least we all know how to chillax. Toby Craig and Charles Hale examine Coalition ideology, the state of the Union and judicial power

Dave says Chillax

Sitting down after Sunday lunch and a few glasses of wine to write WW is enough to make anyone feel Prime Ministerial. Or suitably chillaxed at any rate, as the kids would (probably never) say.   Yes, we now know how our trusty leader likes to unwind. Though hardly revelatory, it did set WW to thinking of previous inhabitants of Number 10. Whether Macmillan’s appetite for Trollope, Ted Heath’s penchant for the conductor’s baton or John Major’s love of leather on willow, there is a strong tradition of premiers finding suitable ways to unwind from an extremely stressful role. If Dave favours a good claret and a tennis session then who are we to object, providing he keeps his eye on the ball?

And in a month of U-turns, that may be a legitimate question to ask. The Government has rowed back on the infamous ‘pasty tax’, the caravan tax and also on the proposed cap on tax relief for charitable giving. It sometimes seems as though everything other than the unshakeable commitment to cut the deficit is ripe for
lobbying.

As the defining characteristic of the Coalition Government, it is difficult to spot a clear and cohesive set of policy objectives which are driving the broader legislative agenda. Growth or bust... as it were. Looking across to Greece and Spain, perhaps one shouldn’t be too hasty to deride that sole, all-consuming objective.
The Queen’s speech, offering unusually few Bills, seemed to reinforce this view. There are some clear Conservative reforms, particularly in education and welfare, but they appear to be Michael Gove’s and Iain Duncan Smith’s respective fiefdoms. It is harder to spot a single joined-up Coalition ideology.


Bunting boom

They all do love the Queen of course and the “stability” that, as Dave must have said a hundred times across the weekend, she brings the country, even if no one else can. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee presented a rare opportunity to wave away those austerity blues, dust off the bunting from last year’s royal wedding and see some good old fashioned British pageantry. All corners of the Union gathered on the Mall and on the banks of the Thames to watch a colourful, if rainy, flotilla, a rather eclectic celebratory concert and Her Majesty taking to the Buckingham Palace balcony to watch another astonishingly choreographed Red Arrows flyover and an equally impressive feu de joie.

As the Union Jack was so proudly and extensively flown across the country, Ed Miliband decided to share his thinking on the future of the Union, saying that Britishness and Englishness need not be mutually exclusive and brushing off any calls for an English parliament. But the political classes seem to have found themselves consistently incapable of tapping in the strength of nationalistic feeling that seemingly only grand Royal occasions (and perhaps the Olympics, when it finally arrives) are able to muster. In England, particularly, there seems to be a prevailing sense of apathy as to the strength of the Union. The main focus has been on Scottish independence, but that is not the only issue which is worthy of attention. The legal interest in this concerns a different half of the Union, comprising England and Wales, in which we naturally take a close interest. The Welsh Government has been consulting on Wales as a separate legal jurisdiction, in which the Bar will have strong views. We will track the responses carefully.


Judicial power and Executive advice

The balance of power between the three branches of Government was in the spotlight once again, as Home Secretary Theresa May reignited the question of how judges interpret Article 8 of the ECHR. Readers will recall the famous, and inaccurate, example Ms May cited, regarding a Bolivian man who had been allowed to stay in the UK because he had a pet cat (actually a, perhaps inadvisable, throwaway line by the judge after the determination had been reached on a more substantial basis). Ms May might find that the judiciary is less receptive to her request for them to reassess the reach of Article 8 than she might hope. Article 8, as Liberty, (and Paul Garlick speaking on Radio 4), quickly pointed out, is already qualified, and judge-bashing may prove counter-intuitive. Ms May may wish we were still looking at her shoes. The judges may not be amused by another unnecessary side swipe from the Home Office.

Arguments over secret trials and a strong oppositional campaign orchestrated by the Daily Mail also urged closer examination over whether judges or politicians are best placed to decide what comes before the Courts where trials are held behind closed doors. The Government eventually conceded, fairly unsurprisingly, that it was for the judiciary to decide what evidence could be heard behind closed doors, and ministers are not best placed to make that call. More worrying is the fact that the Government ever thought this might be acceptable to begin with. 

But the judge who currently holds most of the cards remains Lord Justice Leveson. As WW went to press, the real drama of his still ongoing inquiry was about to begin, with the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Gordon Brown all due to give evidence. The hearings have gone back and forth, since November last year, with a substantial cast list of witnesses, from media moguls, to Government ministers, to Anne Diamond. Asked to report ‘within a year’ we are, assuming that timetable is accurate, at least edging ever closer to the finish line. What is clear, however, is that however much power politicians seek to assume, one should never underestimate the ability of the judiciary to pack a powerful punch. Leveson LJ is sure to make some very clear recommendations for change if his interventions are anything to go by. But as judges often say, he of course has not made up his mind until he has heard all the evidence.


Whitehall changes

Congratulations to Sir Suma Chakrabarti on his election as President of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Sir Suma will step down as the top civil servant at the Ministry of Justice after four years in the job. We await news on his successor, who will doubtless have a busy in-tray as the Ministry grapples both with substantial staff cuts and the implementation of the deeply unpopular LASPO Act.

As June has replenished the reservoirs here’s hoping the sun will shine in the Olympic month.


Charles Hale is a barrister at 4 Paper Buildings and a member of the Bar Council.

Toby Craig is the head of communications at the Bar Council.