Return of the Lawyer Jokes

With Black Lives Matter rightly front and centre of debate, yesterday Keir Starmer commenced his PMQs by referring to the Lammy Report and the Windrush Report, highlighting what he said were recommendations contained therein which hadn’t been implemented by the Tories. Replying, Reckless Boris even muttered “Black Lives Matters”, and argued that recommendations contained in the reports – commissioned by the Tories – were in the process of being implemented. Watch this space.

Turning to the numbers of deaths, Starmer told the Commons that the “numbers haunt us” and that the death count is amongst the highest in the world. Challenging RB, Starmer asked whether there could be any pride in those numbers. RB deployed his usual refrain: it’s too early for international comparisons. Hogwash. We are a basket-case and everyone knows it.

Then to school re-openings, Starmer asked whether RB would work with him to determine the best way to get children back. Again, RB retorted that he had telephoned Starmer – same response as last week – to discuss this. Replying, Starmer essentially accused RB of lying – that RB hadn’t spoken to him about the re-opening of schools, instructing RB “to please drop that”.

This running sore is yet to be picked up by the parliamentary sketch-writers: Starmer is accusing RB of lying. As a lawyer myself, nothing riles us more than when your opponent plays fast and loose with the truth. Drilled into lawyers is the notion that we shouldn’t accuse anyone of deceit unless a high threshold is passed.

“I understand how the legal profession works” retorted Reckless Boris – yes, adhering to our code of ethics; never lying; upholding the rule of law; acting in our client’s best interests – all the traits which any public servant should hold dear.

Guaranteed: more lawyer jibes from RB.

Possible: more predictable questions from Starmer.

Unknown: how will a QC cope with an opponent whom he believes – with justification – has a penchant for falsehoods.


Double Praise for Boris Johnson

Parking Covid for a moment, frequently people on ‘the left’ chastise Reckless Boris (RB) – as I like to call him but not for the rest of this blog – for his countless misdemeanours. It’s a good sport, with plenty to go at. For my part, I’ll certainly highlight incidences of his numerous errors, most of which stem from his character flaws. Levelled at our Prime Minister by many is the accusation that he is racist.

Undeniably, as a provocative journalist he has written some truly ugly words, so ugly that I won’t repeat them here. I can’t and I won’t forget the words and descriptions he has deployed over the years. But it’s a non sequitur to conclude that journalists who use such terms are, ipso facto, racists. There is a strong correlation, of course, and I won’t defend the practice.

No doubt Boris will say almost anything to anyone in order to get what he wants, but what can we learn about his actions rather than his words. I’ll give you a recent example, one which he didn’t get enough credit for; one that I wholeheartedly support.

Plugged-in followers of international affairs will be aware of the on-going unrest in Hong Kong, triggered by China’s attempts to dominate the populous, scrapping the one country, two systems principle which has governed the quasi-state since independence.

With Brexit proper just months away, with the world orientating towards Beijing – as the US self-destructs – Boris has just done the unthinkable – unthinkable if you paint him as a racist – and offered nearly 3 million inhabitants of Hong Kong a path to British citizenship should China enact the Hong Kong-grabbing legislation. Not only is this brave, bold leadership at a time when we are de-coupling from the EU and the laughingstock of the world for our Covid horror show, but this policy squashes the notion that Boris is racist.

Boris’ essay appeared in the South China Morning Post and The Times under the heading “For Hongkongers fearing for their way of life, Britain will provide an alternative.” Here’s the key Boris offer:

“Today, about 350,000 of the territory’s people hold British National Overseas passports and another 2.5 million would be eligible to apply for them. At present, these passports allow visa-free access to the United Kingdom for up to six months.

If China imposes its national security law, the British government will change our immigration rules and allow any holder of these passports from Hong Kong to come to the UK for a renewable period of 12 months and be given further immigration rights, including the right to work, which could place them on a route to citizenship.

This would amount to one of the biggest changes in our visa system in British history. If it proves necessary, the British government will take this step and take it willingly.”

Boris has made me proud. He has done the right thing. Those who will be most troubled by this are people for whom Brexit was all about curtailing immigration. To them I say, “Ha, ha”. Boris isn’t a xenophobe, he’s one of the most cosmopolitan Prime Ministers we have had. Xenophobes don’t become London Mayor.


Inspired by the famous Blair v Christopher Hitchens debate, some years ago I ran Harrogate Debate – an Oxford Union-style debating chamber here in Harrogate. Assisted by others, I hosted debates such as: Is Religion a Force For Good In the World? This House Would Ban Faith Schools; Assisted Dying; and of course, our most attended debate: Brexit.

Each time, the format was that the audience would vote on the motion upon entry to the chamber and then again after hearing the debate. The winner was the debater who persuaded the most people to switch to their position.

Today I watched the debate: Ancient Greece v Ancient Rome, which used the same debating format. Debated in London in 2015, chaired by Andrew Marr, Boris Johnson – who read Classics – argued that Ancient Greece was more impressive, more influential than Rome, with Cambridge Don, Beard, arguing the counter. On entry, the audience were broadly even, with some “don’t knows”. In the end, Beard won. (If I had attended, I would have voted for Ancient Greece on entry and at the end).

Hardly was it a fair fight. Boris read his degree in the mid-1980s and was London Mayor at that time of the debate – i.e. he had other things to do than prepare for a charity debate. Mary Beard was a current professor of classics. Watch it. For the first ten minutes Boris meanders without purpose, occasionally impressing the audience with his smattering of ancient Greek, before then springing into life, cogently arguing his case, predicated on two simple points.

First, Greece was the midwife to Rome: without Ancient Greece, there could be no Ancient Rome. Second, Rome was far crueller than Greece – no crucifixions nor gladiatorial shows. When Beard takes her turn, she eviscerates Boris for being – you guessed it – casual with the truth.

After their position statements are over, when they spar, Boris displays his quick-wittedness and deep understanding of his subject, recounting the years that this or that ancient event occurred. Regardless of who won, regardless of whether Boris accurately portrayed Ancient Greece, we – perhaps begrudgingly, depending on your position – must accept that we are governed by a very capable person.


PMQs on 3 June 2020

In PMQs today, Reckless Boris (RB) was in defensive mood, despatching Starmer’s attacks with consummate ease. The PM – king of winging it – knew what was coming because Starmer’s attack-piece in The Guardian was published the previous evening. Poor politicking from Starmer. Starmer must familiarise himself with The Art of War: attack your enemy when he is unprepared, not when he’s had 18 hours of prep time.


Again at PMQs, startingly for an ethics-obsessed lawyer, Starmer appeared to breach any confidence that he had built with Reckless Boris (RB) by referring to a letter (below) which he sent to the PM on 18 May. Starmer complained that RB hadn’t had the courtesy to write back. Incensed, RB retorted something like: “But I called you and we discussed it on the phone”. Contrary to RB’s penchant for untruths, I have heard nothing to suggest that RB misled us on this. If so, naughty, naughty Mr Starmer. Apologise!



Avid readers of my blog might recall my suggestion that RB would attempt to bring Starmer into the General’s Tent – a move designed to share collective blame when the economy plummets into a depression. Sure, Starmer made the first move and, sure, RB telephoned. But who knows if RB’s emissaries had been previously sounded Starmer out, probably via a deniable back-channel. Await the autobiographies!

Regardless, with trust in the Government understandably evaporating, Starmer wouldn’t want to tether himself to this disaster. RB knows that. Tory knives are already out for RB and they know how to terminate a loser. Let RB own this one, backbench Tories are thinking.


Blairism and Borism

Saddo political anorak that I am, on what was a yet another gorgeous day (has the weather ever been better?), I cantered through – in awe – A Journey by Tony Blair. Never a fan of his, I want to know what made him tick; how did he get to the top; what were his routines, his secrets of success; and did he have a moral compass. Living through the Reckless Boris (RB) and Dominic Cummings age, what parallels could I draw from the Blair and Campbell time?

Slaloming through his early years, his ascendency and of course the 1997 win, nothing caused me greater dismay than how he managed his time whilst PM. Candidly, Blair explained that he would tell people what they wanted to hear – that he would meet them – when he knew that this was a lie. Blair’s words must be read:

“We used to have a phrase in the office called, in mock severity, ‘SO’, which stood for ‘sackable offence’. It applied to scheduling a meeting with people who were never to cross the threshold. It applied even if I had agreed to the meeting. It applied – I am a little ashamed to say – even if I had expressed to the individual concerned my deep frustration with my own office for defying my wishes and not scheduling the meeting.”

Dissecting these words, there are three elements to the lie. First, that he would meet this or that politician, usually a Labour backbencher. Second, when the thwarted MP asks when the meeting would take place, Blair would blame his office. And third, Blair must have briefed his office about the lies that he had told, preparing them to thwart the MP once more. Feigning anger to a Member of Parliament is stomach-churning stuff; deception of an advanced level.

Whilst unsurprised that this was Blair’s modus operandi, for someone so smart, it’s puzzling that he declared his innumerous deceptions in his book. And he wasn’t lying to the likes of you and me, oh no, he routinely lied to elected politicians, who just wanted to provide wise counsel. Blair could have omitted the anecdote. Perhaps writing his memoirs was cathartic, expunging the stains on his conscience.

Like any muscle, the “lie muscle”, if there is such a collection of cells, becomes stronger with repetition – just a little one here and another one there, the mind is readied to deceive. After a while, truth and fiction become inextricably entangled. President Jefferson nailed it when he wrote in 1785:

“He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”

The origins of our participation in the Iraq War can be traced to his routine use of the white lie. Today, we are experiencing Reckless Boris at his worst. Sacked by The Daily Telegraph for making up a source, sacked by Michael Howard for lying to him about an affair, we knew what we were getting: a charlatan who would mislead on the big stuff. His former boss, Max Hasting, wrote of RB before his coronation: “Johnson would not recognise truth, whether about his private or political life, if confronted by it in an identity parade.”

But must politicians lie to get to the top? And does the end justify the means? I don’t know. But what I do know is that Quakerism, like most religions, abhors a lie, and I’m a Quaker.

CategoriesThought of The Day

In defence of Reckless Boris (RB)

After the PM’s apparent bungled performance on Sunday evening, which was supposedly exacerbated by his “clarifications” on Monday, I thought that I would – candidly – spring to his defence.

Like many people, over the last two days I have been frequently interrupted by the pinging of my phone. Each time, a hilarious Whatsapp meme or Twitter video, sent from a variety of surprising sources, arrived, all mocking Reckless Boris’ for his do work, don’t work; do go out, don’t go out; do see family, don’t see family messages. If anything has become clear during lockdown is that we Brits love a joke.

Unquestionably, RB botched the pre-lockdown period, leading to the unnecessary slaughter of the innocents. Never was he a fit and proper person to hold such high office. But it doesn’t follow that his post-lockdown phase is flawed.

Levelled at Boris by many is the accusation that his recent messaging was confusing when he should have been clear. The messaging was unclear, just as they planned it to be. More effort would have gone into preparing for RB’s piece to camera on Sunday than in any of the previous announcements.

Evidently, somehow, the Government must make the country flow again, just as most European countries are unlocking. Nobody envies those who must make such decisions. The Government must, therefore, edge us, step by step, to the new-normal. But how to do this?

Imagine if the Government attempted to give coherent advice which was to be applicable to each person, to each organisation, would that have worked any better? I doubt it. Such clear advice would have had to be age group-specific; specific to town, city or country; specific to each job, and each sector; specific to people with or without young children; relevant to carers; the list goes on. In that scenario, the instructions would conflict. Our lives are unique: no set of rules could apply to all people. Bespoke rules per family would take eons to prepare, when time is not a commodity we have.

By perfecting obfuscation (a skill RB is endowed with), those who feel most able and most willing will move to the new normal, taking preventative measures. Those who return know what to do. The dog’s breakfast of advice, mostly, self-selects. There is something for everyone to cling to.

There will, of course, be employers who encourage the return of their employees when it is not “Covid secure”, but employees who are able to resist the foolish return to work can, for now, accept furlough. There will be casualties, but there would be casualties whichever way the Government now moves.

Other than voting in a buffoon, we had no personal responsibility for the pre-lockdown failures, but we do have some personal responsibility for how we tentatively get going again. The anger directed at RB now is because of our unforgivably high death toll. Trust in RB is evaporating, even if his approach to the great unlocking is appropriate.


How a solicitor political leader might act?

With the PM fighting for his life, the mantle has been passed to Dominic Raab, a solicitor. Sidestepping the constitutional crisis, given that it is the Queen who appoints a Prime Minister and there is no such thing as a deputy PM, what can we expect from another lawyer leader? Specifically, what is to be expected from a solicitor leader?

As a lawyer, Raab is in good company. Multiple British Prime Ministers have been barristers, but only one solicitor has made it to the top job: David Lloyd George (and Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland). Internationally, two of the world’s greatest leaders have been lawyers: Mandela and Ghandi. In the US, 26 US presidents have been lawyers, including Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Nixon, Ford, Clinton and Obama. If you want to run your country, practising law will enhance your chances.

Are there any skills, typically found in solicitors, which might give us a clue as to how Raab will lead during this potential interregnum, or in the event that the worst should befall Boris (and get well soon, PM)? And which solicitor traits might impede Raab?

In my experience as a solicitor, we learn the rules of the game, and then try to play the game better than others. As a particularly astute solicitor, Raab should be able to digest volumes of written information, committing the key parts to memory. It is fair to say that most solicitors have only a basic grasp of maths, therefore any scientific advice which is data-heavy would need to be translated into words.

Most lawyers struggle when only provided with imperfect, incomplete information. Caveating advice, if not fully armed with the facts, is de rigueur for the solicitor (and so is using terms such as “de rigueur”!). At this time, heavily caveated public information messages will not work.

Due to the uncertainty of the COVID science, any lawyer would struggle to form a conclusion on what to do next, and then convince us – the public – of the rationale. For that is another trait: although lawyers are (most unfairly) notorious for bending the truth, our code of ethics is embedded into most lawyer’s DNA, preventing any distortions of truth. My hope – and my expectation – is that Raab would be straight with us. I have seen nothing to suggest that Raab lacks the key lawyer trait of integrity.

But how would a solicitor, provided with imperfect science, reams of data and surrounded with political apparatchiks, make a decision? For example, when should lockdown be relaxed? Most solicitors would instinctively know what to do: follow the expert’s advice. Using the Socratic method, a lawyer would keep asking questions of the experts until the experts have been “knocked around a little” in order to test the veracity of the advice. After the “knock around,” a lawyer would demand that the expert’s updated advice was provided to them in writing, for a further scrutiny. The lawyer, then, would become the judge: weighing up the various arguments, then making findings of facts, before forming a conclusion. A civil legal practitioner like Raab (i.e. not a criminal lawyer) may intuitively opt for “the balance of probabilities” for his test for action, before being compelled to pluck for the safer, stronger “beyond reasonable doubt” criminal burden of proof. After all, Raab would be making life and death decisions.

Lawyers ought to be adept at both written and oral communication, although our communication can often get littered with jargon. As I type, on my desk is the letter which Boris despatched to every household in the country, ordering us to stay at home. From studying Boris’ writing, I would venture that these are the PM’s own words. As a journalist, Boris has the gift of the pen. We lawyers are comfortable with written communication, but we do not possess the journalist’s magic for written prose (this is a prime example). Heaven forbid that we receive a letter from Raab, but if we do, I doubt that it will he who drafts it.

With the spoken word, again lawyers should be skilled, more so if they practised as an advocate, which Raab did not. When public speaking a solicitor is less likely to ad-lib than a barrister. As a result, solicitor speeches are often shorter and, frankly, less interesting than a barrister’s (unless this is just my speeches!). Unlike barristers, solicitors tend not to have a pronounced style: just compare Raab’s delivery with that of Geoffrey Cox QC. When performing advocacy, I don’t want to come up against a barrister, even if my arguments are more compelling.

Equal with integrity, what we need at this juncture is stellar leadership. In my view, top political leaders read the mood – something that Boris does well. The best politicians know how to compromise – something solicitors do well. And the crème de la crème of political leaders – the Mandelas and Ghandis – usually have a North Star: solid guiding principles. Solicitors do not have a monopoly here. In fact, being open to compromise, open to changing one’s mind, actually makes it harder to be a solicitor political leader.

But what sort of leader do we want at this most bewildering of times? If we need scintillating, Your Country Needs You-type leadership, my guess is that you wouldn’t want a solicitor leader. But if we need someone with integrity, who is evidence-led and expert-led, a solicitor leader is exactly what we need.

Good luck to both Boris and Dominic.


Get well soon, Boris

For temporal context, I type this blog as the PM is spending his second night in hospital with coronavirus. As I type this second sentence, Boris has now been taken to intensive care. Get well soon, please.

I’m shocked, I think, but these last few weeks has been so awful out in the real world that I doubt that much would shock me now. The latest statistics suggest that only half of infected people survive intensive care. I’m rooting for you, Prime Minister. Come on!

It’s disconcerting how quickly one becomes numb to awful news. Will life always feel uncertain? And will this unsettled mindset help us to live more in the moment, than in the future? I will muse on that.

It’s a cliché, but the present is like living in a disaster film. If aliens land, the incident might make the “and finally” section of the news.

For the sake of posterity, (and it is in no way schadenfreude to highlight this), on 3 March 2020 Boris shook hands with coronavirus patients in hospitals. He confirmed this during a press conference. Either Boris hadn’t been briefed properly by the Chief Medical Officer, or he disregarded their advice. My bet is on the second. Boris knew best.

And this tells you a lot about our Prime Minister. The first or, arguably, the second, most important person in the country needlessly shook hands with very ill people, and then hosted COBRA meetings with the most important people in the country, during a time when the top people needed to be well. Recklessness is not a trait that I want in a Prime Minister.

A few weeks ago, when news broke of the COVID diagnosis, my thoughts were: first, get well, PM; and, second, that he deliberately infected himself by shaking hands in hospitals, so that he could recover from coronavirus, proving to us that COVID was not something to be scared of. If this is right, though it is a brave, self-sacrificing move, it was – and has proved – highly risky for both him and us. At these times, we need the very best of decisions, by the very best that we have to offer.

Let’s remember that Boris’ umpteenth girlfriend (pregnant with his umpteenth child), chief strategist, health secretary, as well as the Chief Medical Officer, along with lots of other top officials, have all had coronavirus symptoms. Was Boris the spreader? Or did his blasé attitude to this killer virus provoke others to drop their guard? We will never know. I hope that they all recover, and quickly.

What we do know is that, despite his deteriorating illness, Boris continued to lead the COBRA meetings, when he should have been resting. On a plane, air stewards always instruct us to put our breathing apparatus on before helping a child. There was no shame to be had in staying well during a national crisis, but Boris will be Boris. The quality of his decision-making must have been impaired by his sickness, endangering everyone. And this tells you something else: Boris doesn’t trust his underlings to run the country.

Get well soon, Prime Minister.