For many ambitious backbenchers and junior ministers who might have fared better in a Tory majority, this, they may have felt, was their moment, having ‘patiently’ bided their time. The years of genuinely working one’s way through the ranks are long since gone. In a world of talent shows and instant celebrity, a couple of years acting as lobby fodder and pedalling the Government’s line in the broadcast studios is thought by many of the young Turks to be more than enough. But whilst reshuffles can be the long-awaited breakthrough for some, it can come as a crushing blow to many more, who must continue to be ignored.
The Great Offices of State, unsurprisingly, remained untouched. Osborne, Hague and May remain in post in the Treasury, FCO and Home Office. Whilst the return of David Laws raised some eyebrows, the biggest news was the movement of two Cabinet heavyweights, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, that biggest of political beasts, Ken Clarke’s long-rumoured exit was confirmed, becoming a Minister without Portfolio, and Andrew Lansley, the architect of extensive and unpopular health reforms, became Leader of the House. If Jeremy Hunt’s appointment as Health Secretary, after a fairly unimpressive stint as Culture Secretary, came as a surprise, then the appointment of Chris Grayling as the first non-lawyer to inhabit the Lord Chancellor’s seat did not. Iain Duncan Smith reportedly turned down the role, paving the way for the former Shadow Home Secretary’s appointment, which did much to cheer the Tory right wing, who were baying for a Justice Secretary whose tough law and order rhetoric will match their own.
Very little is certain in politics, but it seems that Ken Clarke has probably left his last major Cabinet role. It is right to note that whilst the Bar will often have disagreed with him, particularly over LASPO, he has made an immense contribution to British politics. His vocal promotion of the UK legal services sector and its value to the economy was a particular high point of his tenure at MoJ.
Although since 2003 it has been possible for the Lord Chancellor’s Office to be inhabited by a non-lawyer, to traditionalists, the idea of a politician with no legal background playing such a pivotal role in the legal system will seem anathema. Times change and it was inevitable that sooner or later a layperson would take on the position, but what matters is their values, not their qualifications. From the perspective of the legal profession it is vital that the Lord Chancellor understands, promotes and defends the integrity and independence of the Judiciary, the rule of law and access to justice for all. Whatever his views on the purpose and scope of the penal system, there is no reason (yet) to assume that Mr Grayling will not hold those fundamental values. With LASPO implementation set to begin in earnest next year, there are tough times ahead for MoJ; we cautiously wish the new Secretary of State well. Only time will tell whether or not the first non-lawyer Lord Chancellor was an inspired choice.
Mr Grayling will preside over a new-look MoJ team, with Lord McNally the only Minister to hold on to his role. Out go Jonathan Djanogly and Crispin Blunt, the former of whom did little to endear himself to the Bar; in come Jeremy Wright and Helen Grant to replace them. A former criminal barrister on the Midland Circuit, Wright will already have a firm understanding of the issues on his desk. Grant is a former solicitor and made a constructive and positive contribution to debates on the LASPO Bill as it made its way through Parliament, standing up, in particular, for advice centre funding. She was also the first black woman selected to defend a Tory seat (Ann Widdecombe’s safe one) and was brought up by a single mother on a Carlisle estate. She went on to build her own specialist practice as a family solicitor. She will surely have much life experience to bring to the Coalition table. Damien Green replaces Nick Herbert and will work across the MoJ and Home Office. We can but hope that a fresh team will bring a fresh approach; particularly in promoting and protecting access to justice. A little more understanding of the role of the Bar in the justice system would also not go amiss.
There was a change too in the Law Officers, with Sir Edward Garnier replaced as Solicitor General by the former Chairman of the Society of Conservative Lawyers, Oliver Heald. Sir Edward, knighted on his departure, who often attended Bar Council meetings, will be genuinely missed, but we look forward to working with his successor.
What will this all mean? Many new faces, and a mixture of elation and disappointment, as the old make way for the new. The top team remains the same, which also means that there are unlikely to be any huge policy shifts. The Prime Minister’s key allies have done well in the reshuffle; there is much change, but it could not properly be described as bold and decisive. The team has been refreshed. That provides an opportunity for the new faces in Government to try to convince a sceptical public that the mission of the Coalition to reduce the deficit remains on course.
We can expect plenty of rhetoric as we enter Party Conference season. The Bar Council will be present at all three, making the Bar’s case both to the Government and opposition at a range of fringe meetings and receptions. The Bar Council will be co-hosting a reception with the Society of Conservative Lawyers and the Law Society in Birmingham where the Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Bar will be speaking on social mobility, civil liberties and exporting legal services; plenty to ward off the start of term blues. As the legal year starts to unfold and the noise at Westminster village increases, WW shall be sure to keep an eye on developments.
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.