Former Tory justice secretary condemns government attacks on 'lefty lawyers'

Peter Walker Political correspondent
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty</span>
Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty

David Gauke, the former Conservative justice secretary, has condemned Priti Patel and Boris Johnson for their attacks on lawyers, saying they highlight an authoritarian-minded government with “a distrust for the law in general”.

In a strongly worded article for the Guardian, Gauke echoed concerns from legal groups that comments by the home secretary and prime minister about “lefty human rights lawyers” risked prompting violence.

Related: This government's attacks on lawyers can only harm the rule of law | David Gauke

Gauke, who was the justice secretary and lord chancellor until July last year, criticised the government for what he said was a wider antagonism to the rule of law, as illustrated by its decision to breach international law by seeking to unilaterally re-write elements of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

“This antagonistic attitude to the law is a departure from the traditional position of the Conservative party,” he wrote.

Gauke was the MP for South West Hertfordshire from 2005 until last year’s election. He lost the seat after being stripped of the Conservative whip for rebelling in a Brexit vote, and then finishing second behind the Tory candidate while standing as an independent.

The former minister noted Patel’s speech at the Conservative conference earlier this month, when she condemned “the do-gooders, the lefty lawyers” for undermining the asylum system. Johnson made similar comments in his speech.

Gauke wrote: “The argument that lawyers are upholders of a broken system that is favouring themselves and illegal migrants over decent, honest British folk is designed to provoke anger. In some cases, that anger may turn to violence.”

He cited the case of a man charged with an alleged racist attack following an incident in September at the offices of a law firm involved in immigration cases.

Gauke said he welcomed the condemnation of violence against lawyers from his successor as lord chancellor, Robert Buckland. “But there is wider concern that this criticism of lawyers reveals a government that appears to have a distrust for the law in general,” he said.

“‘Activist lawyers’ work to ensure that their clients get the protections they are entitled to under the law. We do not have a system whereby immigration officials have unfettered discretion to deport individuals, but rather a system constrained by laws.”

More widely, Gauke argued, Johnson’s government “gives the impression that striking a balance is something of which it disapproves”, adding: “Anything that constrains its ability to do what it wants – whether it be the European Union, an impartial civil service or the rule of law (or, prior to the general election, the House of Commons) – is an illegitimate source of power that should be diminished, abolished or suspended.”

He wrote: “Conservatives are supposed to believe in the rule of law. Lawyers – ‘lefty’ or otherwise – are essential in upholding the rule of law. Conservative cabinet ministers should cease to speak of them as enemies of the people.”