The Liberal Democrat’s left-wing liberal zeal could lead to some interesting times at the MoJ.
‘Fifteenthly, as Simon Hughes would say,’ is a fairly common joke in Liberal Democrat circles. Certainly speeches by the ex-barrister and Bermondsey and Old Southwark MP tend towards the long side. They’re not windy, and he can be (intentionally) very funny – but do tend to reflect a certain tortured morality. A former member of the Church of England’s general synod, his nickname ‘the vicar’ suits him.
This is an eye-catching appointment because Hughes has maintained a reputation for making decisions for moral, rather than convenient, reasons – and successive Lib Dem leaders, and the party’s press office, have tended to see him as, if not a problem, at least a headache. In 2012 he told a journalist: ‘I don’t have to say the government is wonderful because I’m not in the government.’
That’s classic, vintage ‘unhelpful’ Hughes. How does that approach translate to government?
Lord McNally, whom he replaces, was a pragmatist and power-broker who got on with the job of being in coalition and found ways to establish a rapport with two lord chancellors.
By contrast, Hughes arrives with a great deal of left-wing liberal zeal. Going on past form that can translate into dramatic results – where he uses considerable charisma, patience, moral authority, empathy, charm and lengthy talk to get a result. Or it can lead to prevarication.
On the former, some will recall the role he played following the murder of teenager Jamie Robe in Rotherhithe. When police met a ‘wall of silence’, Hughes convinced witnesses they would be protected from reprisals and their anonymity guaranteed if they gave evidence. He also arranged for the deportation of an illegal immigrant to be overruled, because the man’s evidence was so valuable to the inquiry. When three youths went to prison, it also earned him a gangster-contract on his head and 24-hour special branch protection.
He’s also an environmentalist and nuclear deterrent ‘sceptic’ whose beliefs on social justice and the role of the state are shaped by the challenges of his mixed urban constituency, where he is an omnipresent figure.
But then there are what feel like the unnecessary or disappointing things. His prevarication over publicly acknowledging his sexuality (a pretty open secret in Westminster – how could he hope to rely on a denial?). The speculation was that he ‘might’ vote against the coalition agreement (he didn’t). Many looked to him to at least rock the boat on tuition fees in the early days of the coalition. And as the party’s health spokesperson, he was capable of sitting on a policy decision for a very long time.
There can also be an air of operational chaos around his parliamentary or campaigning offices – though some of that comes from an impecunious operation.
Where, then, does all this leave us, and him?
For a start, Hughes is going to be a challenge for Grayling – not least as someone with very different instincts to the lord chancellor, and whose knack for inspiring die-hard loyalty in many quarters gives him some powers that are beyond ministerial rank. In some ways Hughes fills the leftish/independently-minded gap in the government left by Chris Huhne’s departure.
One of his ‘faults’ – the tortured prevarication – may even be an asset to the liberal cause. The coalition has been a government in a hurry on many counts, and for many liberals, therefore, bad at protecting the things they value from change.
And some of the disorganisation that has its roots in office-impecunity will be changed by circumstance. Even in a time of austerity, ministries aren’t that short of pocket money.
Those are the positive bits of the scorecard. On the downside, his closeness to his constituency verges on the visceral, and is a huge magnetic pull on his attention. That’s been the case in party matters, and one might find it is here.
It’s also the case that while LASPO might have looked different with Hughes’ ministerial input, many of the MoJ’s big plans for this government have been set in train already – decided, determined and legislated for.
Altering the course of government policy would require some of the mettle Hughes showed in the Jamie Robe case.
All of which should at least make what follows interesting – this is a far more significant appointment than sending Lewes MP Norman Baker to the Home Office. One feels for the MoJ press office come January – and that’s not a form of words I’ve typed before.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor