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GrieveWatch! My life and times with the Attorney General (as he is now)

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2011-02-12 at 11.55.57 "Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): If compensation was awarded, would it not be appropriate for the Government to decide to take it from the legal aid budget of the civil lawyers who will have brought most such cases about? 

The Attorney-General: That is an interesting proposal from the hon. Lady, but, if I may say so, I would not seek to answer that question at the Dispatch Box today. It raises a number of ethical and practical issues to which, on the whole, I would want to give further consideration."

I know that votes for prisoners shouldn't be a laughing matter.  But when I read this exchange from Thursday's debate, the top part of my chest began to shudder - involuntarily, uncontrollably - my throat loosened, my head jerked back, and my mouth began to emit strange, halting, barking noises.  I simply couldn't help myself.  My old friend and neighbour, Dominic Grieve, was at it again.

In the debate's wake, it's time to consider the Attorney-General.  By the time I took the low road to Wycombe to be considered as its Conservative candidate, Grieve had already walked the high road to the impossibly safe seat of Beaconsfield.  For reasons that escape me, I once experimented with a computer simulation of a Canadian-style Conservative election wipe-out.  It left, no doubt erroneously, three Conservative MPs - John Hayes (South Holland and the Deepings), Andrew Rossindell (Romford), and Grieve.  I'm sure that he would have risen to the challenge like the gentleman he is.

And also like the lawyer he is.  Grieve is, above almost everything else, what Private Eye would call a "complete and utter lawyer" (the phrase derives from "outer lawyer", or rather barrister - those who've been "called to the bar").  Beak-nosed, bespectacled and grim-mouthed, he looks like one of those terrible judges who used to fine Bertie Wooster after he'd been done for pinching policemen's helmets.  There's a sense of him having sprung from the womb fully robed and wigged, an infant Rumpole - with one hand wielding a writ and the other clutching a copy of Blackstone's "Commentaries on the Laws of England".

To help illustrate the point, I cite the following phrases from some of the Attorney-General's speeches, drawn from a random search -

  • "My view has always been";
  • "I am mindful of";
  • "I entirely applaud"
  • "I perceive the provision";
  • "I am by no means persuaded";
  • "I apologise for any calumny";
  • "I encourage him to ascertain whether there is another way it can be drafted to meet my point";
  • "Reasonable and proportionate";
  • "Substantial flexibility";
  • "Complete discretion";
  • "A wide margin of appreciation";
  • "Differential criteria";
  • "Blanket prohibition";
  • "Something so antisocial towards the civil order";
  • "The Government would be in rather serious breach of the principles of the rule of law";
  • "We need to demonstrate that we are engaging with the concerns of the Court"

- and finally (on the subject of sexual infidelity) -

  • "That is a matter on which people who might otherwise be behaving reasonably appear to lose all sense of proportion and reason."

I concede that this is the way a lot of MPs tend to speak.  Indeed, I still do so myself from time to time.  So I admit that most of them have said some of the phrases above.  But only Grieve could have used all of them.  I should add that his foibles were no more injurious - as he might put it - to our good relations than mine were.  I like to think that we Bucks MPs got on well in my time, and it's fair to say that we did (though the nearer one got to the northernmost reaches of the county, the more strained relations with colleagues became.)

He frequently drove me to Wycombe; once, I flew with him to India.  We travelled to Pakistan together.  We've both doodled at quarterly meetings with Bucks County Council's Cabinet, clutched at the insides of a Libyan army helicopter, raised our glasses at the Marlow Regatta.  I hope that he got as much out of all this as I did.  But whether so or not, my mind is stocked with memories of Grieve: Grieve taking the salute at a military parade in Delhi; Grieve emerging from a gym in Latimer, looking horribly fit; Grieve snaffling up carpets in a Muzaffarabad bazaar.

Screen shot 2011-02-12 at 12.55.33 The rug-collecting is a hobby.  The Attorney-General knows a Balouch from a Tabriz, and I've a fuzzy memory of him exiting a carpet shop pursued by attendants, brandishing their wares like extras in a Carry On film.  This is a sign that beneath the starchy surface is something more...well, if not quite exotic then at least just a little bit excitable.  (For the geneologists among you, he's half-Scottish, half-French.)  He can be very witty, even charming.  But he's not a man you'd want to cross: after all, this is someone who can apprehend a burglar while in black tie (Grieve, that is, not the burglar).

He was rushed in as Shadow Home Secretary after the departure of David Davis, partly because David Cameron wanted to signal no change on civil liberties.  None the less, Davis and Grieve, having walked together for so long over control orders and 28 days and so on, are travelling in different directions over prisoners and voting.  The explanation is simple.  Davis is a Parliament First man, a beer-and-beef champion of traditional British liberties.  Grieve is a lawyerly Courts First man, whose maiden speech praised Labour's Human Rights Act.  I simplify, but not by much.

"The key to Dominic," a Cabinet Minister once told me, "is that he fetishises the law."  Grieve would probably reply that without law there's only tyranny - or chaos.  But this raises the question of who should make the law in the first place.  Grieve was a resourceful enemy in opposition of any attempt simply to scrap the Human Acts Right.  This alone wouldn't have provoked the Cameron Circle to move him on from being Shadow Home Secretary.  But there were rumours of the mother of all bust-ups between Grieve and the Sun, which believed that he wasn't on the same wavelengh as Wapping Man.

At any rate, he was slipped sideways to become Shadow Justice Secretary.  Then came Coalition, and less room for Conservatives round the Cabinet table.  As Attorney-General, Grieve has the right to attend Cabinet when his Department's business is on the agenda.  He'd be less than human not to think, when he does so, of how close he came to being a full member - and a very senior one indeed.  Grieve is not the man to complain: he's in that sense a good soldier.  But were I the Prime Minister, I wouldn't tell him that the Government's willing to flout a ECHR decision and necessarily expect him to stay in post.

It's that lawyer thing, you see.  I filched my explanation of "utter lawyer" from Peter Ackroyd's magnificent biography of Thomas More, "the King's good servant, but God's first".  Grieve is the Prime Minister's good servant, but the law's first: that is, the rule of law, as he believes it to be - a view shaped by a quiet, Anglican Christianity (he remains a Member of the London Diocesan Synod).  The Attorney-General is a very hard man to move once his mind's settled.  As I did, and politicians must do, he sought to get his way in relation to policy - on extremism, in this case.  In my imagination, I used to filed his manoevres as "GrieveWatch".  I wonder if the Prime Minister's doing the same.

And here, to close, is a final extract from Thursday's debate -

"Mr Davidson: Does the Attorney-General accept that, in being a lawyer, he has the problem of over-complicating matters? [Laughter.] Is not the basic issue whether we in this country should decide our line on whether prisoners should be able to vote - or should it be decided by somebody else? Where do the Government stand on that question?

The Attorney-General: The object of lawyers is to take people's concepts and to try to navigate them to their correct destination, if at all possible. [Interruption.] In this case, there is no specific financial benefit, however pleasant it would be to be able to charge a special fee to my Government colleagues for appearing here this afternoon. I do not think that they would have condescended that to me."


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