A Cabinet minister in waiting?

For Andrew Dismore, entering Parliament was the natural next step after his outstanding achievements as a personal injury lawyer. Elizabeth Davidson talks to a back-bench MP whose drive is second only to his commitment.

ONE member of the Society of Labour Lawyers “almost chinned” him after listening to his “gung ho” defence of the Government's civil justice reforms, and the mere mention of his name elicits wildly differing comments.

These range from “obnoxious” to “committed”, from “arrogant” to “extremely hard working” and from “a bit of a know-all” to “he has the ability to really understand an issue”.

Motivation is clearly not something lacked by Andrew Dismore, back-bench Labour MP for Hendon, former leader of Westminster City Council Labour Group, Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (Apil) executive member, highly respected personal injury lawyer and partner since 1995 at prominent personal injury firm Russell Jones & Walker.

In person, Dismore is affable and cheery, although impatient and not one to suffer fools gladly. He is no maverick figure and neither is he an oily smooth-talker with the gleam of power in his eyes. He comes across as extremely dedicated.

Dismore was one of a clutch of lawyers elected in last May's general election and is regarded by many parliamentary insiders as one of the most ambitious. One thing which might hold him back, according to Westminister, is his brusque manner which has occasionally rubbed people up the wrong way.

While Dismore refuses to speculate on whether the future might include elevation to Cabinet rank, many believe he will achieve it. He has so far been very careful in what he says in public so as not to rock the boat politically, and prefers to use his influence behind the scenes.

Dismore is known as an excellent lobbyist and he demonstrated his low-profile technique in my presence, approaching Geoff Hoon, Parliamentary Secretary to the Lord Chancellor's Department, in the House of Commons central lobby, to make a suggestion on an issue currently under discussion.

But Dismore, the ace lobbyist, criticises the lobbying abilities of the legal profession (especially the Bar Council but with the exception – unsurprisingly – of Apil) as “pretty ineffective”, claiming the profession has not been listening to the government's agenda. “There is no point playing on one pitch when the government is on the other pitch,” he says.

He also claims lawyers “don't always produce the best quality of material and are often too late” in sending correspondence to him about issues they want him to raise.

Asked whether he should have voiced more support for the legal profession during the civil justice reform discussions, Dismore fires back: “I don't campaign for lawyers, my concerns are for my constituents.”

Yet he is not always so dismissive of lawyers' concerns.

Joel Bennathan, a barrister at 14 Tooks Court and a member of the Society for Labour Lawyers, says: “To outsiders Dismore seems to toe the party line but he claims he defended legal aid using his influence from within the party.”

Dismore's Labour Party pedigree is impeccable. Now 43, he was elected as the youngest-ever Labour member on Westminster City Council, in 1982, and became leader of the council Labour group in 1990.

There, he helped expose several scandals, including the gerrymandering of elections through the “council homes for votes” affair.

Dismore's mother was Mayor of Bridlington in Yorkshire, and his grandfather and father were also town councillors. Perhaps this background explains why Dismore now spends two or three evenings a week knocking on doors in his Hendon constituency, introducing himself and enquiring about their concerns.

One year on from his election, the first Labour MP for the area since 1945, with a comfortable 6,155 majority, claims to have already covered a sixth of the constituency in this way. Dismore jokes that his new job is “twice the work for half the money” – with a 9am start and a midnight finish on a good day, often returning home at 2am to face a 3ft high pile of constituency post.

Dismore attended Bridlington Grammar School, studied law at Warwick University (where he joined the Labour party) and gained a master's degree at the London School of Economics before working for what is now the General, Municipal, and Boilerworkers union, training union officials in instructing the workforce on their rights.

He then became a lawyer, gaining his articles at Robin Thompson & Partners (now Thompsons) and specialising in representing injured firefighters on behalf of the Fire Brigades Union. In the course of fighting these cases in the 1980s, Dismore persuaded the courts to accept a new head of damages for “loss of congenial employment”, now established in personal injury law.

Victims of violent crime also have reason to thank Dismore. Probably his most outstanding legal achievement was to lead a team of trade union lawyers in a 1994 judicial review case successfully challenging the Tory government's plans to scrap the criminal injuries compensation scheme and replace it with a scheme offering far lower levels of compensation.

In 1996, Dismore successfully led an Apil campaign against the so-called “clawback” rule, that accident or occupational illness victims who received compensation from litigation had to repay any state benefits they had received. As a result this rule has now been repealed.

According to prominent Irwin Mitchell partner and Apil executive member John Pickering, Dismore has achieved “some fine things for Apil”.

Thompsons senior executive Nigel Tomkins, who has known Dismore for more than 20 years, describes him as “a warm human being and a hard fighter who is driven by his social conscience”. He also tells a tale of a trip to Moscow in 1987 where Dismore came up against the wrong side of the law – he was arrested and fined for jaywalking.

The praise Dismore's former colleagues in the profession heap on him backs up his reason for entering parliament – that he had “reached the top of the personal injury profession and pretty much done everything” so that he saw his role becoming more and more political.

While his legal career has brought about change, the question now is whether his campaigning zeal will survive the rocky path of politics.