Michael Gove’s time as lord chancellor will be remembered as a success.
So, farewell then, Michael Gove. As a fellow-journalist, you’ll know I’m using the cliche ironically. We certainly haven’t heard the last of you. Now that Boris Johnson is foreign secretary, I expect the Daily Telegraph is looking for a columnist.
And you will be remembered as a successful justice secretary – although, as Lord Beecham said from the Labour frontbench in the Lords earlier this year, ‘almost anyone would have been an improvement’ on your predecessor Chris Grayling.
You spent much of your time reversing his decisions. In January, you announced that you would be scrapping Grayling’s criminal legal aid duty contracts scheme and suspending a planned fee cut. A month earlier, you abolished the much-criticised criminal courts charge. You even supported a 3% pay rise for High Court judges in the hope that it might attract candidates who were put off by Grayling’s pension cuts.
You recognised, as Grayling didn’t, that you could save money and reduce offending by improving the prisons. Your early reforms ranged from lifting restrictions on the number of books that prisoners could keep in their cells to scrapping plans to build an £85m prison in Leicestershire for 320 young offenders. You cancelled a £5.9m deal to provide a ‘training needs analysis’ for prison staff in Saudi Arabia, apparently incurring the wrath of the Foreign Office.
And you had hopes for the future. Last week, you said you would be meeting Nick Hardwick, the new chair of the Parole Board, to discuss the problem of IPP prisoners – those serving indeterminate sentences for public protection – who have spent many more years behind bars than was ever intended. You suggested it might be possible to speed up the review of individual cases.
But politics is a rough old game, if you’ll forgive another cliche. That was obvious from the reception you received from judges this month at their annual works outing to the Mansion House. You managed to get the judges to applaud you by proposing a vote of thanks to the lord mayor and the City of London catering staff. But nobody there could forget that you’d effectively prevented the former mayor of London from standing for prime minister. If you thought that the new prime minister was going to thank you for this, you were sadly mistaken. Nor will the City lawyers, almost all of whom supported Remain. They don’t seem very grateful to you for the huge amount of legal work you gave them by backing Brexit.
Your greatest success, ironically, was to demonstrate that the lord chancellor no longer needs to be a lawyer. Grayling’s failing was to appear uncomfortable in their presence – as if he thought lawyers could trump any of his arguments with an obscure law that nobody had heard of. You had the intellect to master a brief and the sense of history to understand the importance of your role. And you are a much better advocate than many who practise advocacy for a living: one of the few politicians who can speak extempore in perfectly crafted paragraphs.
But, despite your humble background and your undoubted charm, you lacked the common touch. So too did a recent predecessor, Lord Irvine of Lairg. He never recovered from being sacked as lord chancellor. I am sure you will.
And now you have been replaced by Liz Truss, the first woman to hold the post of lord chancellor in a millennium. I remember asking the late Lord Hailsham of St Marylebone, whose father had been lord chancellor before him, whether his son might follow in the family tradition. ‘What about my daughter?’ he replied. ‘She’s a lawyer, too.’
But Dame Mary Hogg was never a politician – and that’s the prime qualification for holding the job these days. Those lawyers who still hanker for one of their own at the Ministry of Justice are living in the past. They should be concentrating instead on securing even greater autonomy for the judiciary by, for example, restructuring the courts and tribunals service.
There was huge relief that the prime minister hadn’t restored Grayling to his previous role. As Truss made her way from Downing Street to the MoJ, reporters searched in vain for clues about her views. We shall just have to wait and see. Her priority should be to maintain Gove’s prison reform policy. With her support, the judges can look after themselves.
No doubt they’ll tell her that when she arrives at the lord chief justice’s court, in her gold ceremonial robes, to take her oath of office. Truss will swear to respect the rule of law, defend judicial independence and ensure effective support for the courts. And, as her predecessor discovered last week, it’s also a good idea to get on well with Theresa May.