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Tue, 1 December 2020

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Vacuous abuse from ministers on lawyers is more of the same dog whistle politics

Vacuous abuse from ministers on lawyers is more of the same dog whistle politics

Neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Secretary have much of a reputation for loving lawyers, but both are noted for frequent use of the proverbial dog whistle, writes Lord Garnier. | PA Images

Lord Garnier

4 min read

It is not the vacuous political abuse from ministers that concerns me, but their wilful - or ignorant - neglect, motivated by fear of the mob.

Melanie Phillips recently asked in the Times whether accusing “leftie lawyers” of frustrating government attempts to enforce immigration law is really tantamount to incitement to violence. She did not think it was, disagreeing with the letter published in the Guardian signed by 800 members of the legal profession. The letter accused the prime minister and home secretary of “hostility” towards lawyers, thus undermining the rule of law and endangering the personal safety of people working for the justice system. 

These two ministers were upset that lawyers were doing what they were meant to do. Namely, advising and representing their clients, sometimes in matters involving unlawful conduct by the government and doing so at the public expense.

The lawyers were upset that these two politicians were behaving as politicians often do. Blaming someone else for something they may not be responsible for, in order to hide something for which they themselves might be responsible for - knowing that whatever they said would appeal to their political base and do them no harm in the eyes of their supporters. 

We are considering the behaviour of two government ministers whose lives are enriched by attention, good or bad

Nothing new to report there. Neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Secretary have much of a reputation for loving lawyers (save perhaps in the PM’s case, Marina Wheeler QC), but both are noted for frequent use of the proverbial dog whistle.

We are considering the behaviour of two government ministers whose lives are enriched by attention, good or bad. They have not shrunk from taking an eccentric view of the obligations, still less the conventions, which come with accepting the rule of law and the ministerial code that flows from it.

The unlawful prorogation of Parliament in September 2019, long trailed in the media by his acolytes before he took office and executed shortly afterwards, (personal interest alert: acting for Sir John Major in the case, I must be one of the few in this land who have called the Prime Minister “the defendant”), is an example of Mr Johnson’s carelessness about the law and what it means.

‘We must get Brexit done’, ‘it’s worth a go’, ‘only our enemies will complain’, and 'when it goes wrong, we’ll call the judges Remoaners and constrain their powers by statute'.  Holding ministerial meetings with a foreign government, outside one’s remit whilst on holiday and without informing the then-Prime Minster or her then-department – leading to Priti Patel’s removal from Mrs May’s government – is another.

Call me complacent or just plain cynical, but I am not prepared to expend energy worrying about the speeches of the Prime Minister or the Home Secretary attacking lawyers.

Just as a duck quacks and a dog barks, so do they blast off at lawyers. Judges are easy targets because as a rule they cannot answer back.  Being nice to lawyers is not a popular cause. But Johnson and Patel will not convert a single voter who does not already support them.  It’s just noise and not even as good as Dick the Butcher’s recipe for improving the country in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2:  “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers”.

If you want to get exercised, think about the November 2016 Daly Mail headline, “Enemies of the People”. This was the failure of the then-Lord Chancellor to lift a finger in support of the very institutions, the judiciary and the rule of law, that she was supposed to protect.

It is not vacuous political abuse from ministers that concerns me, but their wilful or ignorant neglect motivated by fear of the mob, be it a Dick or a Dacre. And then I remember what every government does when it’s in a muddle: it calls on the lawyers to pull them out of the hole. My telephone number is below.

 

Lord Garnier QC is a Conservative member of the House of Lords.

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