Attorney-general happy to mix politics and law
6 December 2010 | By Katy Dowell
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With responsibility for advising the Government on its legal issues, the attorney-general can be called on to advise on some of the most contentious issues before Parliament.
Lord Goldsmith, for example, found himself in the unenviable position of having to advise on the legality of the war in Iraq. The latest appointee to the role, Dominic Grieve, will be hoping for an easier ride, but with economic pressures on every department under his remit, it will not all be plain sailing.
On the day we meet Grieve, like many of his Government peers since the election, is firmly onmessage. He is a trained barrister who took silk in 2008 and who possesses the personality traits of a lawyer turned politician - ever the consummate, polite professional, but with a slight trace of paranoia and the fear he may tread on the wrong toes.
This is particularly tricky given that the attorney-general, while limited in his powers, has a wide-ranging remit and will come into contact with all levels of government.
Not only does Grieve advise the Government on legal issues, he also superintends the Treasury Solicitor, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the director of the Serious Fraud Office Richard Alderman and the Revenue and Customs Prosecution Office.
Grieve acknowledges that the attorney-general role is “fairly limited” and that he does not possess the powers of a Tory policymaker; but, he insists, he makes it his business to get involved with Parliament.
“I have a slot in the chamber once a month to answer questions,” Grieve explains. “I make it my business to know what’s happening in the chamber.”
When not debating Grieve can be found dashing around the House of Commons to various meetings.
“My life does consist of a great deal of meetings and a lot of homework in my red boxes,” he says.
The attorney-general position has been criticised in the past for being a political appointment, compromising the independence of the legal advice provided.
This was highlighted by the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war, which prompted speculation about whether former prime minister Tony Blair had pressurised Goldsmith, his then-chief legal adviser, into approving the war’s legality.
Grieve says it is essential for the attorney-general to have the confidence of Parliament, a confidence that may not apply if the position was independent.
“It’s a role that combines being a lawyer and politician,” he says. “It’s not an irreconcilable mix - it’s possible to ignore the politics.”
Essentially, Grieve says, the key is to have mutual trust, adding: “What would the alternative be? Would an independent official be better able to provide independent advice? I have my doubts. That person would become isolated without the support of government. The attorney-general’s ability to communicate is enhanced by being an MP.”
That said, Grieve concedes that his powers in the role are not omnipotent.
“If the attorney-general role develops further we’d be seen to be interfering with other departments,” he says. “We’re a small department with 42 members of staff, including 17 lawyers. It doesn’t put me in a position of policymaking.”
Grieve is quite clear that he wants his office to have little to do with policy, unlike some of his Labour predecessors.
The former solicitor-general Vera Baird was heavily involved with the Equality Act, which passed into law earlier this year, while Goldsmith pushed through initiatives designed to combat fraud.
“As attorney-general I’d like to ensure that our law officers deliver excellent standards of service,” he says. “The attorney-general needs to be focused on their own department.”
With the Treasury imposing 24 per cent cuts to the legal budget over the next four years and the Treasury Solicitor’s Department facing spending reductions of 25 per cent, Grieve has to juggle a lot of plates.
Inevitably, as with his predecessors, there will be mistakes along the way, and as much as he resists it he is bound to tread on the toes of some of his colleagues. But as he is now a politician first and lawyer second, Grieve reckons he is the right man to be juggling those plates.