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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions – In conversation with Dominic Grieve

Posted on 29 July 2020

Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions are a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.

This live session was held on 17 June 2020.

Dominic spoke with Partner Annabel Thomas about the role of the Attorney General, the shape of parliament to come, and his thoughts on the challenges of Brexit and COVID-19, and more.

Annabel Thomas

Welcome everybody I’m Annabel Thomas and I’m your host for today.   Thank you very much for joining this Mishcon Academy Digital Session.  Dominic Grieve QC thank you so much for joining us today, for finding the time we are really grateful.  You’re talking to a room stuffed with lawyers and of course before you became an MP you had a flourishing career at the bar.  What made you decide to leave the lovely world of law, to serve in Westminster?

Dominic Grieve

When I was at University it was a very difficult time politically you know, it was the mid-‘70s.  There was a feeling that there had to be some national renewal so, as a conservative at University it was quite an exciting time and that’s when I got my interest in politics.  By ’97 I was married, I had small children and actually my career at the bar was going so pleasantly as far as I was concerned that my ambition to go into the House of Commons was starting to tail off and indeed, my wife and I went on holiday at Easter ’97 and I said to her, ‘You know I’m going to give up trying to get into the House of Commons.  There’s about to be an election.  I haven’t been selected.’ And I regret to say that five days later I was the candidate for Beaconsfield and four weeks’ later I was the MP. 

Annabel Thomas

I’ve got a very clear recollection of you becoming MP for Beaconsfield because I was a teenager at the time.  How do you think today’s Parliament is comparing with the early days when you started in ’97?

Dominic Grieve

There are clearly far more rules now about what is acceptable behaviour from a Member of Parliament.  So, in a way an MP is helped I think much more today about what is acceptable and what is not.  I don’t think we are witnessing some spectacular decline.  I realise that Parliament took a huge hit over the whole issue of expense allowances and I’m afraid did Parliament and has still done Parliament a lot of reputational damage. 

Annabel Thomas

And in terms of the current MPs in Parliament, who do you think is there now who is really someone to watch? Who is doing what an MP should and exercising independent thought and judgement?

Dominic Grieve

Clearly, if you’re on the opposition benches, you’re pretty unfettered about what you do.  You are going to have to follow the opposition whip most of the time but even if you don’t, the chances of it being held against you with a Government with a large majority is pretty remote.  So, there are lots of labour MPs I can think of – Yvette Cooper, Chris Bryant, who show huge independence.  I mean I’m just selecting two because I happened to work closely with them over issues on Brexit.  Government back-benchers.  Well, I think there are still a few around.  Clearly, when you are a Government back-bencher then the risks to your career if you depart markedly from the Government line, well I’m afraid it may not do you any good.  When you’re senior you can probably do anything you like up to a point although there is clearly a point by which you can’t go further or otherwise I wouldn’t have been chucked out of the Conservative party. 

Annabel Thomas

One of the most independent offices of state is that of the Attorney General and you served from 2010 for four eventful years.  What was your proudest achievement as AG? What was the moment you look back on with greatest affection?

Dominic Grieve

I’m very pleased that I did what I did over Hillsborough.  It led to the quashing of the Hillsborough inquests and it led to the subsequent inquiry and the prosecutions.  I’m also pleased that with the then DPP Kier Starmer, we succeeded in keeping the Crown Prosecution Service afloat in a time of major change.  I’d like to think that when I left office we were actually, had a more effective organisation than when we started.  The third thing I think that I have a good… I feel pleased about was that I took on the issue of contempt of Court.  My predecessors had essentially given up on prosecuting newspapers for contempt of Court, where their coverage was clearly undermining a fair trial system where you have trial by jury.  I decided that we had to do something because it was getting out of control and I was able to do something about it and I tried to link that with a real outreach programme and say to the press, ‘Look, I want you to be able to report but you have got to understand the framework.’

Annabel Thomas

The rule being changed I think came into sharp focus in recent weeks with the Dominic Cummings issue and the current AG commenting on Twitter.  Is it a debate you think she should have weighed in to?

Dominic Grieve

I try not to comment on my successors but no, Attorney General’s should not Tweet.  If they are going to Tweet, they should not Tweet about what is something which is capable of turning into a prosecutorial decision. 

Annabel Thomas

Talking of social media and the last election, this might be a good time to move onto that election campaign and obviously you were in an extraordinary position, standing as independent and trying to take on the majority you had built up.  What were the issues on the doorstep? Was it all nationalist issues or was it constituency issues too?

Dominic Grieve

There were constituency issues on the doorstep but it’s also right to say that for the most part on the doorstep, the key issues were about Brexit, the extent to which Jeremy Corbyn was or was not somebody who could become Prime Minister and about the future of the country.  I never had illusions about the election.  If you go and stand in an extremely conservative area which you’ve represented for many years, the idea that your constituents are suddenly going to reverse their voting patterns out of personal loyalty to you is I think, a little bit fanciful.  What I did want to ensure was that we had a proper debate. 

Annabel Thomas

Of course, obviously, vociferous campaigner in the campaign to remain.  Did the referendum result surprise you?

Dominic Grieve

If you’d asked me that question just before the referendum had started, I think my reply would have been we will win it.  I saw the writing on the wall about halfway through.  The narrative of the remain campaign was, I’m afraid, poor.  It was all about, you must vote to stay in because otherwise the economic consequences are going to be so bad.  Whereas for me, it’s about Britain’s place in the world.  It’s about the security of the European continent and our role within it.  One of the drivers to our doing joining was the belief that bringing European countries together in common endeavour would be massively beneficial to our citizens and in truth, so it has proved to be.  But we didn’t have that narrative. 

Annabel Thomas

The negotiations of our withdrawal are continuing in the midst of a pandemic, there’s been no request for an extension.  How do you see things panning out from here?

Dominic Grieve

I think there is material to do some sort of deal but my belief I think is we are either going to end up with no deal or we’re going to end up, as I think Sir Ivan Rogers has said with a series of cheap and dirty deals, was I think how he described it.  The other thing which I think we’ve failed on the whole to read into this is the EU’s approach to it.  There will be some people who will say, ‘Let’s do them down’ and the obvious area to do us down is in our services.  Like all negotiations, is there goodwill? If there is, then we may come to some arrangement but I think the risk is quite high that we may end up leaving with no effective long-term relationship of any kind at all. 

Annabel Thomas

Where do you think that would leave the picture of the Union?

Dominic Grieve

All this is destabilising.  As I keep on saying, my delightful constituents who voted for Brexit in the name of tradition but what they’ve actually done is to perpetrate revolution and revolutions have their own momentum.  They devour their own children and they carry you to places you never expected you were going to have to go and they’re immensely difficult to stop. 

Annabel Thomas

Do you think Johnson is capable of bringing this together? You obviously have in mind his extraordinarily chequered past. 

Dominic Grieve

I have expressed myself in quite strong terms about the Prime Minister.  He’s highly entertaining and he is also in his own way very clever.  But I do sometimes wonder if he has the right personality to be Prime Minister or indeed, he showed the right personality to be the Foreign Secretary. 

Annabel Thomas

You describe him as having unleashed a tide of invective and mendacity and that was before the Dominic Cummings scandal.  But do you, what did you think as you saw his story unravel and change about the trip to Barnard Castle?

Dominic Grieve

In the three months after the Prime Minister became Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings became his Chief of Staff and Principal Advisor, the Prime Minister’s office turned into a propaganda department prepared to say things which I thought went far beyond the norm even, I would expect, in robust democratic politics.  It included telling blatant untruths about what the Government was doing.  Blatant untruths about the Government’s behavioural intentions and then on a personal basis I was struck by the fact that an un-named Briefer at No.  10 – an official Government Briefer – said that we were being helped by the French or Foreign Governments to draft the Benn Act.  The consequence of that briefing was that in the next 72 hours the death threats flowed in, picked up by a number of the tabloid press who were saying we were traitors.  If a Government has lost its own reputation for behaving properly, it becomes much harder for the Prime Minister, or any other minister, to step in and calm things down because they themselves have contributed to this use of language.  So, to that extent I was unimpressed with what I saw at the end of last year. 

Annabel Thomas

And something else you asked for repeatedly in Parliament was the report on Russian interference in elections to be released.  Now, I know you can’t comment at all on what is in that report, but could you comment on why you think we’re still waiting?

Dominic Grieve

We carried out a report as a committee, this is a cross-party committee.  It was ready from our point of view from March last year.  It has to go through a redaction process with the Intelligence Agencies and the Central Security Secretary which is absolutely legitimate and we came to a resolution in early October, where we had a document that could be published.  Normally, the Prime Minister’s office signs it off and there is an unwritten understanding with the Prime Minister’s office that it’s normally done in 10 days.  Everybody knew in early October that there might be an early election and early elections are disastrous for the work of the Intelligence Committee because essentially all the work falls off the edge of a cliff.  So, the Prime Minister and his office knew perfectly well that if it didn’t come out before Parliament rose, it couldn’t be published at all.  We waited 10 days.  Nothing happened.  We made enquiries that seemed to be talking to a brick wall and that’s why I raised the point I did as a point of order in the House of Commons.  The reply I got was, ‘Oh, well it normally takes up to six weeks’.   Well, that’s not true, it normally takes up to six weeks before the committee publishes the report.  So, I’m afraid that’s why I said I thought the explanations provided by the Prime Minister at the time or the Prime Minister’s office were bogus because they simply didn’t stack up.  The committee folds.  It can’t be published.  The election takes place.  The day after the election, astonishingly, No.  10 says,’ Oh actually we’re now quite happy to have it published’ but of course, it can’t be published for months because you don’t have an Intelligence and Security Committee.  So, I’m afraid we’re going to have a situation where I suspect now, we’re not going to see this report until possibly the autumn of this year. 

Annabel Thomas

What sort of Brexit deal do you believe Dominic Cummings would like?

Dominic Grieve

My impression, from reading and listening to what he says, is that as an advisor he is a genuine believer in massive deregulation, low tax, a libertarian instinct as to the UK’s role and that is really taking the Brexit revolution to its ultimate conclusion.  I doubt very much that he is successful in doing that because I think that ultimately that is a view that is shared in the United Kingdom by a very limited number of people, a very limited number of Members of Parliament.  I just don’t see that revolution working and if it were to come anywhere close to working, then the chances are it will deliver a Labour Government very quickly. 

Annabel Thomas

What do you think about the rise of populism in both the US and the UK and do you think that eventually intellectualism and common sense will prevail?

Dominic Grieve

Trump is certainly an extreme example but I also agree that we have it here.  There’s no doubt that there’s a rise in populism.  One way of grappling with it, but it is always about taking a risk, is about being more honest.  There is something about being straight with people including straight about the limits of your own capacities to take action and far from it showing you to be weak, I think ultimately it has the capacity to show Politicians to be strong. 

Annabel Thomas

The levels of diversity and thinking and beliefs is misting.  What damage do you think this will do to the UK in the long run? I think we can all agree there is substantial work to be done. 

Dominic Grieve

Yes, we need to do much more.  But I, perhaps there I’m slightly more, perhaps I’m over optimistic.  My own profession, over 50% of entrants are women and the diversity element is very substantial but what is more worrying is whether in fact, those coming in are achieving their full potential and trying to skew the system to bring people is one of the most difficult things.  We argue that we have a judiciary which is appointed on merit but ultimately your ability to show merit is dependent, in many cases, on your education and white males may well have an advantage in respect of their education particularly if they’ve been educated privately.  We can’t escape these things and it’s very hard to change.  I would be staggered and disappointed if in 20 years’ time we don’t find that there are a substantial number of ethnic minority Judges in the High Court and above.  I think there will be because they’re there, you can see them, you need them. 

Annabel Thomas

I very much hope you’re right.  So grateful to you for coming to speak to us.  Thank you so much.  It has been absolutely fascinating.  Thank you very much. 

Dominic Grieve

Thank you.  Pleasure to do it. 

The Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions.   To access advice for businesses that is regularly updated please visit Mishcon.com.

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