It is never easy being a traitor, especially when you aren’t one, and there is no exception even for the Tories.
That easy going and most cerebral of Tory MP lawyers, Dominic Grieve, labelled a “liberal conservative” (surely, “a badge of honour”?), has had to face an important dilemma with the advent of Brexit- to vote against his party.
For Grieve it means how far should he go in support of Brexit as a loyal Tory, and probably one of the most influential and important barristers the House of Commons currently has as a member. Anyone who has been elected will know the feeling well (possibly excepting Jeremy Corbyn, the serial rebel) and that is you don’t want to go against your colleagues unless locally mandated to do so, or it’s a matter of political conscience.
And so, I found myself in Dominic’s office overlooking Whitehall interviewing him recently whilst he faced a period of profound reflection on what he would have to do. Make no mistake, like many of us when asked, “do you still vote ‘remain’?”, the answer unequivocally is “yes”. But I could see it was not easy for him, and I confess the very first vote I faced as an elected politician was to go against my party in support of my electorate. With Dominic, it’s a matter of principle, and the public know it which is why we are blessed with him on the backbenches… at present anyway, plus the hate mail and juvenile sketch writers.
Grieve represents leafy Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire. His majority at the General Election in June 2017 was 24,543. He received 36,559 votes on a 72.3% turnout with Labour second. A majority of 13,987 votes was achieved when first elected in 1997 and he has remained the MP for this Chilterns constituency ever since, increasing in his majority at each successive election. And in 2017, the constituency saw a 4% swing to Labour despite Dominic gauging an extra 3,000 votes in that “snap” election. Interesting statistics when the Referendum was so finely balanced on either side in South Bucks.
Born in London in 1956, Dominic was educated at the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle on Cromwell Road in South Kensington, Colet Court preparatory school in Barnes, Westminster School, and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Modern History in 1978. He was the President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1977. So, his antecedents are both Tory, and essentially European, as he has an Anglo-French mother, and is president of the Franco-British Society.
Dominic continued his studies at what was then the Central London Poly, and now the University of Westminster, where he received a Diploma in Law in 1979. So, he came to the Bar via a non-law degree background which is much favoured now for the variety of knowledge and experience.
We talked about his early days at the Bar. Fortunately, Dominic is an avid reader of “The Barrister”, so he knows our approach and is very much “one of us”! I wanted to find out how it all started for him, as the son of an MP and silk. He was in different chambers from his father, Percy, the MP for Solihull (1964-83) and he built up his practice in the way most of us have done with a fair mix of list work and lower court experience to begin with. However, he also obtained that special expertise one gets from the lawyer/politician family and which assists greatly in a better understanding of how our two great functions of state operate with some inside knowledge which most barristers do have or acquire.
As a London Borough councillor, Dominic saw the sharp end of the Thatcher revolution in Hammersmith & Fulham, like many contemporaries did in the Shires before he moved on to Westminster. Reviewing his early political career, it was all mainly concentrated on law and home affairs. He then became Shadow Justice Secretary and was “very happy with the move” because it clearly “did suit his talents better”. Fate took a hand, though, after 2010 and he became Attorney General for 4 years under Cameron. It is right to say that many across the political spectrum were saddened when he left office as he commands substantial cross-party respect. But we all know what he has been up to since!
CONTEMPORARY LEGAL ISSUES
We did initially discuss, briefly, the Jackson Supplementary Report still lurking in the shallows: “wait and see” was a recurring theme for that and many current topics we covered although Grieve is never one to shirk an opinion when asked bluntly… probably because of that cross examination style which does tend us to give a proper, if guarded answer to questions put so you know where you stand as an interviewer.
On the Bach Commission and legal aid, the “current state of legal aid is unsatisfactory”, although he is “very pleased that the Lord Chancellor has announced a review of LASPO which will “review case-by-case categorizations and current restrictions on access to justice” with “the huge burdening of unrepresented parties” placed on the courts and the extra costs placed on the court systems. Again, we will wait and see.
We did talk about the MoJ budget in some detail which he described as having been “severely restrained” and moved to the “crisis in the prison system” although throughout, Grieve took a most pragmatic and “right down the middle” view which is the one I hear most in the Robing Rooms these days. We do know what the problem is but, alas, there is not much by way of remedy yet in place.
The best question was kept for later- should the Lord Chancellor be a lawyer. Frankly, he gave a guarded answer which I interpreted as “yes”. Events overtook us, and lo and behold, a new LC was appointed, solicitor David Gauke.
We did discuss a strong Independent Bar with top quality advocacy, but Dominic remains “open-minded” about a future single disciplinary body although, on fusion, he was clear that the two parts of the profession should remain separate. He cited “the problem about the quality of advocacy” reminding me of the smallish number of solicitor-advocates. We also talked numbers with “many coming to the Bar in areas which could not sustain them” even with the continual growth and demand for legal services.
With all recent interviews, the spectre of online courts silently appeared with a predictable “wait and see” caution which was expected. He talked of the “capacity to deliver” such courts with the hint that the times scales will be much longer than we originally thought. Cameras, he felt, were “a mistake”, but again I think we will wait and see. The frankness was welcome and many of the answers much as expected. We did talk about “pro bono” services which were “very much welcomed for the wonderful work performed”. And he reminded me that, as Attorney General, he had championed “pro bono” and events such as the legal walks.
CONFOUNDING THE MOGG-JOHNSONS
And finally, to the heavy policy. Dominic was opposed to Brexit prior to the Referendum in 2016 although he has admitted in interviews that “I’d considered myself a Eurosceptic” which has surprised some.
Recently, in December 2017, Dominic tabled an amendment (Amendment 7) to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill requiring any Brexit deal to be enacted by statute, rather than implemented by government order; the amendment was passed, representing a defeat for the government. This action began the road to confound the “Mogg-Johnsons”. Talking to “The Independent” he took the historic line saying, “I do see this (Brexit) as a defining moment in modern British history”. You can see why it is useful for a lawyer to have a non-law degree.
Grieve does not predict a way out of Brexit. Barristers, judges and jurists are always interested in the dissenting judgment, whether it comes from the judiciary or in other ways like persuasive articles or Parliamentary dissent. The view is that today’s dissenting judgment is tomorrow’s good law. Such could well be the case with the intricate Brexit legislation and the scrutiny and safeguarding measures seen in the Commons whilst we await a further mauling by their lordships.
The dissent shown by “the gang of 15”, or whatever number the press has now invented, proves, I suggest to readers, that we have been fortunate to have reasoned suggestions by Grieve & Co to ameliorate the harshness of the Brexiteer. And there is no question that Grieve will bail out of politics for he is in it for the long haul. The reason for his action on the “Withdrawal Bill” is simple- “it is the very immediate future” which concerns him the most at present and that is about the Bar as well as Brexit.
CHANCERY v COMMON LAW
And talking of comparisons, when you meet Dominic Grieve, one daring question should be asked- are you a Chancery or a Common Law type? (I didn’t). As schools of thought go, I have often toyed with the idea that Dominic is in the Chancery camp even though he is a Bencher of Middle Temple. It is the approach, you see.
And we all remember Walsh v Lonsdale… and who won, and why, and the sometimes-confusing equitable maxims which might not mean what we think they mean but you get the best results from equity. So, it’s the long term which counts for that equitable gloss on the common law which is keenly felt today by many through the “fairness” approach on how we leave the EU and what safeguards we should seek to protect the public.
For this dissent, much gnashing of teeth has taken place with jokey journalists although the stark reality is “the next six months are crucial” as “we are running out of time”. Views Dominic has expressed now to many newspapers and to “The Barrister” with this in-depth interview.
So, it was no mutiny. Dominic is no “Remainiac” or a Tory Fletcher Christian- figments of Lunchtime O’booze now on the wagon. It’s a legal safeguarding issue for us all, so this unlikely rebel leader has done us all a favour – Brextremists get over it.
We know we are going at this crucial time but it’s the way we go which is all about parliamentary and legal processes. We may not see Dominic Grieve as a cabinet minister again, but his Brexit dissent has done us all a great favour. And for contemporary legal issues he is no dissident. In fact, rather conservative as befits a Chiltern MP where wretched Brexit was so evenly balanced. We are most fortunate to have a Dominic Grieve to match the “Mogg-Johnsons”.