As the Brexit negotiations kicked off in Brussels yesterday, an equally delicate act of diplomacy took place in London at the Royal Courts of Justice, where David Lidington was sworn in as the new Lord Chancellor. Ceremony aside, this was a big political moment, involving one of the most important speeches of Mr Lidington’s career so far.
He faced a tough audience. Relations between the judiciary and the government had completely broken down before the general election, with the Lord Chief Justice going on the record to criticise ministers in brutally clear terms. So as I suggested last week, Lidington urgently needed to butter up the judges and reset relations with them.
He appears to have got this message, which would have been hammered home by judicial policy officials at the Ministry of Justice if necessary. Here’s the key passage from his swearing-in speech:
I am determined I will be resolute and unflinching as Lord Chancellor in upholding the rule of law and defending the independence of the judiciary…
Your intellect, your sharp legal minds, your wealth of knowledge, together with your dedication, personal integrity and commitment ensure we have a judiciary that is fair, free from improper influence, and truly independent.
This will have gone down exceptionally well with his audience, which included many of the top judges in the land, including the outgoing Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, who is to retire this autumn, and Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton (both pictured above with Lidington). As one source told me, judges ‘respond so very well’ to flattery.
They are no doubt sceptical about having yet another non-lawyer Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, as Joshua Rozenberg set out in his open letter on Legal Cheek. But they will have enjoyed his emphasis on being ‘resolute’ and ‘unflinching’ in defending the judiciary. That’s probably the nearest thing they will ever hear to an official apology over the government’s failure to intervene early on in the ‘enemies of the people’ row.
Inevitably there was an emphasis yesterday on Lidington’s experience – not just the CBE dangling round his neck, but the 25 years in Parliament that he mentioned in the speech. Who he is almost matters more than anything he says as Lord Chancellor, because judges will feel slighted if they’re not given someone impressive to deal with.
But on a day of ceremony like yesterday, everybody would have been on their best behaviour. Liz Truss delivered a good speech on the same occasion last summer (which I helped to draft). Perhaps the more interesting questions will be how the judiciary responds to the court reform coming down the line, how well Lidington gets on with the new Lord Chief Justice when Lord Thomas retires, and how fiercely he’ll stick up for the judges if they face another attack from the press.
And, of course, there’s the small matter of how long he’ll last in the post, given that we may face a new prime minister and cabinet in the near future. Yesterday’s swearing-in ceremony was the fifth since 2010.