From his office in parliament’s Portcullis House, Robert Buckland MP gazed through the autumn drizzle on to New Palace Yard, the cobbled driveway leading to the House of Commons. It was there, he recalled, that on 22 March 2017 an Islamist terrorist fatally stabbed a police officer after running down pedestrians with a car on Westminster Bridge.
When we spoke, Buckland, the former justice secretary, had been trying to make sense of another senseless killing. The stabbing of his Conservative colleague David Amess during a constituency surgery in a church in Southend has led him to consider quitting the political career he loves.
“I feel akin to what I felt in 2017 when we had the attack on parliament,” he said. “It does shake your confidence. It does cause you to question, why am I putting myself and my family through this?”
Buckland, 53, is married with twins, and said his family’s safety and that of his team and constituents is his main priority. He said Amess would want his colleagues “to plough on” and not to compromise the “crowning glory” of British democracy – the close connection and easy contact between MPs and their constituents. Buckland thought he would ultimately decide to carry on, but it is clearly a devastating and troubling time for him, as for many British parliamentarians.
His faith (he is a practising Anglican) helps, as does writing down some of his most difficult thoughts. On the advice of the Bishop of Swindon, he started keeping a diary to help him with the “sense of hopelessness” he felt after the 2017 attack. He will be writing about Amess, too, he said, pointing to a blue notebook on the round oak table in his office.
Buckland has seen more political upheavals than most. If he chooses to publish his diaries, there will be plenty of drama to share. He is a veteran of the Brexit battles of 2018 and 2019, when Theresa May repeatedly tried and failed to get her European Union divorce deal through a deadlocked parliament.
After Boris Johnson won the Tory leadership, Buckland was promoted to the cabinet as justice secretary and lord chancellor. As the leading Remainer in the government, he found himself accused of betrayal by fellow pro-Europeans after defending Johnson’s prorogation of parliament and later the Prime Minister’s proposal to break international law by reneging on parts of the Brexit deal.
In his first major interview since he lost his job in September’s reshuffle, Buckland reflected on the system he oversaw, which includes 500 courts and tribunals and 121 prisons in England and Wales. Despite what he sees as a lot of progress, he feels parts of it are falling seriously short.
A record 60,000 cases are waiting to be heard in Crown Courts, a backlog that has worsened dramatically since the pandemic, with about half taking more than six months to complete. Tory strategists fear the situation is a political time bomb that could wreck the party’s reputation on law and order, already damaged by the Sarah Everard case.
Is the criminal justice system as it stands delivering justice for women? “No,” Buckland said. “I readily acknowledge that, for example, in rape prosecutions the system is failing far too many victims, predominantly women.”
Everard’s kidnap and murder by a serving police officer as she walked home understandably led women across the country to lose faith in the police, he told me. “I’m a huge supporter of the police,” he said. But while the “majority” of officers were “good, decent public servants”, a small minority were not up to the job, “and then there’s a very small minority indeed who are just bad”.
Bad in what way? Seriously incompetent? “No. I’m talking about the tiny minority of people who are people like him [Wayne Couzens, Everard’s killer], in it for the wrong reasons.” It is a shocking observation from someone who was recently so senior in the criminal justice system. “The ‘one bad apple’ argument isn’t good enough.”
Instead of being “defensive”, senior officers must be “constantly vigilant” about weeding out dangerous officers and supporting those who need to improve, he said. “Leadership is all about being honest and there will be times when the police have to own up.”
It’s not just the police who are in Buckland’s sights. A few days before he was sacked, he sent a funding bid to the Treasury as part of the government’s three-year spending review. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is due to publish the final settlements for Whitehall departments alongside his Budget on 27 October. Buckland revealed he had asked for “a couple of billion” more for the Ministry of Justice, which he argued would be “tiny” compared with the spending increases planned for the NHS or schools.
The investment would be worth it, he said, because Johnson’s levelling-up mission would falter unless he took seriously the need to help communities blighted by low expectations and a cycle of reoffending. Delivering on his promise to “unleash Britain’s potential” after the pandemic would determine Johnson’s fate. That means the cost-of-living crunch, with inflation increasing, poses a major risk to the Conservatives’ chances of winning again.
“I think the biggest hurdle will be a sense that we haven’t made progress coming out of Covid, that people feel perhaps uncertain about their future and the future for their families. People are going to have to feel… that their incomes are rising and that the cost of living can be managed. At the moment that is a big challenge.”
Buckland was born in Llanelli and served as a criminal barrister in Wales before becoming a part-time judge. Sitting on a green sofa with his jacket off, revealing a pair of red braces, he still resembled a lawyer more than a cynical political operator, though he bristled at the idea that he’s too “nice” for politics.
Buckland had to be resilient to cope with the Brexit debates in the hung parliament of 2017-19. A self-confessed “remainy Remainer”, he was attacked from all sides – by Brexiteers for backing a “soft” Brexit and by pro-EU campaigners for backing any Brexit at all. Amid the angry, late-night sittings and knife-edge 2am votes, Buckland remembers moments “when you just wanted to scream”.
He blames the current hard Brexit on Labour and the SNP for flirting with a second referendum. He lost friends on the Remain side who thought he had “sold out”, he said. But he wanted to stay in government to try to reach compromises that both sides could agree on.
Similarly, he would prefer a middle way between the radically different leadership styles of the two most recent prime ministers he served under: the “formulaic” May, and Johnson, who thrives on creative chaos. “One had almost too much structure and the other one doesn’t have any.”
Buckland’s political hero is another arch-Remainer, Ken Clarke, who also served as justice secretary. He shares his predecessor’s passion for jazz. Buckland’s idea of a good night is dinner with friends and some fine wine (“a lovely white Burgundy” to start, and “a great claret” with the main course), rather than hitting the nightclub dance floor in the style of Michael Gove.
And then there’s his diary, which he insists isn’t really a diary, just a “book” he writes in. “It’s very dull, frankly, but it gives me a chance to sort of vent, I suppose, and I find that quite helpful.” He doesn’t know if it will be published. “You’re not looking at it,” he added. “It’s just to keep me on an even keel.”
This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West