Now I’m a backbencher, I’m free to speak my mind

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

25 September 2021

9:00 AM

Politicians are supposed to have a survival instinct. Mine didn’t kick in last week, so I had no idea that my evidence session to a House of Lords committee on Wednesday would be my swan song. I was speaking about the work of the Ministry of Justice, where I had been lord chancellor for two years. The work, I said, is more than a series of desiccated processes. It is, and should always be, rooted in the rule of law, fairness and equality. With that off my chest, I rushed to Prime Minister’s Questions. In the middle of it, I received a text message saying that the Prime Minister wished to see me. By 2 p.m., my time in the cabinet was over and I was leaving government.

In my meeting with the PM, I didn’t follow the example of my predecessor Lord Kilmuir, who when dismissed told Harold Macmillan that a cook wouldn’t be treated in that way. Macmillan replied that it was easier to find lord chancellors than cooks. It might have been true then. It was the pre-Delia age and parliament was full of lawyers. Today, MasterChef and The Great British Bake Off have turned everyone into decent chefs: I’d suggest that cooks might now be easier to find than decent lord chancellors. But for the few of us lawyer-politicians left, there can be no better job than lord high chancellor of Great Britain. To walk in the footsteps of Becket, Wolsey, More, Bacon and Clarendon is an incredible honour. What other title would a person need?

One of my favourite films is In Which We Serve, in which Noël Coward (modelling his ship’s captain role on Mountbatten) says to his crewthat ‘a ship can’t be happy unless she is efficient and she certainly won’t be efficient unless she’s happy’. I hope that my old team felt that. People often do not appreciate that when a cabinet member is sacked, the special advisers lose their jobs. I’d like to heartily recommend mine to any future employer. If they can put up with me, they can do anything.

Now that I’m a backbencher, will I still receive invitations of the same quality? My last one was to the Last Night of the Proms. Outside the Albert Hall, I fought my way past activists giving away free EU flags. ‘Get over it,’ I felt like saying: ‘We lost!’ But perhaps they had the right idea: we Remain campaign veterans can certainly belt out ‘Rule, Britannia’ with the best of them. As the evening reached its finale, those in the box next to ours — hosted by the BBC — didn’t seem to be singing or flag-waving quite as energetically as the rest of the hall. My colleague Thérèse Coffey thought this might be because they had forgotten to bring a Union flag, so she reached over and offered hers. They accepted it, and even got into the spirit towards the end. Who says the Tories never do anything for the BBC?

On my penultimate day in office, I was pressed in the Commons on the fate of Afghan judges, many of whom are now in terrifying danger. The terrorists and other criminals they put away have been released by the Taliban and are at large, looking for vengeance. All the judges were incredibly brave, but the 270 women among them, about a tenth of Afghanistan’s judiciary, literally risked their lives for the law. Their chosen career is enough to warrant a death sentence in the eyes of the extremists now at large in their country. Even before the fall of Kabul, the city was full of people who thought women should never pass judgment over men. In January two women High Court judges were murdered on their way to court. One of my last acts as lord chancellor was to make sure judges are given a place on the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy: that is to say, they will be given sanctuary in the UK if they ever want it. We’d be honoured to have them here.

Backbenchers can, of course, speak their mind a little more freely than government ministers. So it is perhaps safe for me to say that I was interested to read the leading article of last week’s Spectatorsuggesting that asylum seekers should be allowed to work as they wait for their claims to be processed. This already happens in Denmark. That system, I’d say, is well worth a look.

It was perhaps prophetic that my choices at a karaoke party hosted by Liz Truss and Thérèse Coffey a few days before the reshuffle were ‘Mack the Knife’ and the great Sinatra number ‘That’s Life’. ‘That’s what all the people say / You’re riding high in April / Shot down in May / But I know I’m gonna change that tune / When I’m back on top, back on top in June!’ I’ll settle for June 2022.

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