After a busy few days in Manchester, what did we learn about legal issues?

Grayling said he’s sorry for legal aid cuts

Chris Grayling is not a man, you sense, who apologises with any great enthusiasm. He has the look of a victorious poker player who would walk away with your car keys, house deeds and pet chihuahua without so much as a consoling hand gesture.

But in Manchester he actually said sorry to solicitors – he even began a speech with it. On more than one occasion he played the ‘I’m doing this with a heavy heart’ card. Of course, there was no suggestion that he was likely to change, but ‘sorry’ makes up for that, right?

Tory lawyers are as angry as anyone

Being the justice secretary at the Tory party conference should be like Linford Christie entering the father’s race on school sports day. It’s a gimme – you just have to reel off some platitudes about kicking foreign prisoners in the nuts and walk off to a standing ovation. But the response from lawyers at fringe events was frostier than Jack Frost eating Frosties watching A Touch of Frost. Conservative lawyers gave it to him with both barrels.

The legal aid debate is being framed to deceive

There was a fleeting mention of legal aid in Grayling’s keynote speech on Monday, as he reaffirmed that prisoners’ complaints could not be funded by the state. The delegates loved it. But for those who have not followed the debate of recent months, there was no mention of other cuts. If the government really believes this is the best option, it should have the guts to say so to a mass audience, not frame the argument on disingenuous hand-picked elements.

Sober Grayling is well aware of his standing amongst lawyers

Apparently the justice secretary does not drink – or at least not at party conference – as he wants a clear head in case he’s required to speak on behalf of the government on policy matters. Perhaps his sobriety means he remembers any negative feedback – certainly he is acutely aware of what many in the profession think about him.

He bashfully admitted his lack of legal training at one event and, whilst revealing plans for an anniversary celebration of Magna Carta, said he knew many lawyers thought he was out to destroy it.

Dominic Grieve would be a great lord chancellor – but it’ll never happen

The attorney general is charming, frank and self-assured around lawyers in a way Grayling never is. Grieve told the story of how his young son imagined him to be a super-hero when he was appointed shadow DG, and he was willing to forecast a rise in litigants in person after the cuts kick in. He’s also got a great way of summarising arguments (as you’d expect from a barrister). Of course, his candour is precisely why he’d never make it to justice secretary, which is a shame. 

I’m not moving to Belarus

The arguments about the European Convention of Human Rights are straight out of CBeebies. Those advocating withdrawal cherry-pick cases to justify their position. Opponents will always, always ask ‘do you want us to be like Belarus?’. Is it too much to hear some reasoned and articulate debate on this? The Conservatives will have to offer some if next year’s draft bill has a chance of clearing the inevitable legal hurdles.

Manchester was full of tumbleweeds

One Conservative summed it up during a fringe event, saying: ‘I’m starting to wonder if I’m the only Tory here. The rest are lobbyists and journalists.’ I’m sure it’s the same with the other parties, but it doesn’t look good when ushers are almost manhandling you to ensure you sit in the front seats to make it seem full on the TV cameras. It definitely felt quieter than last year.

Manchester is a great host city

Aside from the trams, which act as silent death-traps for absent-minded southerners checking their iPhones, you can’t fault this city. Security and police were friendly (I can’t vouch for the snipers rather unsubtly perched atop buildings) and the organisation was faultless.

The Maggie merchandise was a bit much

My Geordie friend (think coalmines, flat caps, etc) didn’t appreciate the Maggie beer I brought him back, but the Tory shop, complete with Thatcher coasters, keyrings and even baby-grows, was constantly busy. But more than one delegate was uneasy about the tackiness of the whole thing. Surely there was a better way to pay tribute?

City firms need to keep an eye on their staff

I won’t name him, but one lawyer had certainly had too much complimentary booze as he told all and sundry where he worked at a fringe event. The swine even ruffled my hair. After the infamous Clifford Chance trainee video a couple of weeks ago either firms need to keep staff on a leash or make sure they take it easy on the free wine.

John Hyde is a Gazette reporter