The growing row over members of parliament and their secondary interests now has a new face and a new name: that of Geoffrey Cox, the 61-year-old MP for Torridge and West Devon.
Although Cox is not the wealthiest MP – that accolade belongs to Rishi Sunak, who accrued his fortune prior to becoming an MP and whose assets are now held in a blind trust – he is the highest-earning sitting MP due to his extensive legal practice, which is why he is now in the headlines. But the row also has implications for what has, increasingly, become problem positions for prime ministers: that of the law officers (the attorney general, the solicitor general and the advocate general), and the lord chancellor (or, as it is often referred to, the secretary of state for justice).
Cox is a throwback in several ways: those who know him well describe him as “an old-school orthodox Thatcherite”. But more importantly, his legal practice makes him something of a historical curio too. Although barristers who become MPs have long continued to practice law while serving as sitting members of parliament, and most barristers in the House of Commons continue to engage in some legal work – including Labour leader Keir Starmer – no other legal professional in the Commons has anything like as heavy a workload as Cox.
In times past, barristers who became MPs continued to pursue active legal careers, particularly when they were in opposition or on the government back benches. John Morris, one of a handful of politicians to have served in the cabinets of Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and Tony Blair, continued to practice law throughout Labour’s prolonged periods in opposition, from 1959-64, 1970-74 and 1979-97, including the 1982-97 period, when he was shadow attorney general, and he was by no means atypical.
But as the day-to-day demands on members of parliament have increased, the number of MPs continuing to practice law has decreased – although the number of barristers in the Commons has remained essentially unchanged since 1997. No sitting MP of either party has had anything like the active legal career of Geoffrey Cox.
That absence means that finding good law officers has become increasingly difficult for prime ministers. A good law officer needs to tick three boxes: they need to, a) be broadly in sympathy with the government of the day, b) be a well-qualified and respected legal professional, and c) ideally be able to take questions in the elected House of Commons rather than the Lords.
David Cameron’s law officers tended to tick boxes b) and c) at the expense of box a): neither Edward Garnier nor Dominic Grieve, his first solicitor general and his first attorney general respectively, were politically aligned with him though they were both eminent lawyers. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown prioritised boxes a) and b) at the expense of box c), with their attorneys-general appointed via the House of Lords. In opposition, both Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer have prioritised boxes a) and b): both Shami Chakrabarti, Corbyn’s shadow attorney general from 2016 to 2020, and Charlie Falconer, who has held the post since Starmer’s election, are Labour peers not MPs.
Cox, who ticked all three boxes under Theresa May – and is really the only attorney general you could say has – lost his job because he was not politically aligned with Boris Johnson on the Internal Market Bill and other matters. Of the law officers Johnson has appointed from the House of Commons, only Lucy Frazer, who became a Queen’s Counsel in 2013, had achieved that accolade before being appointed as one of the government’s lawyers.
In the long run, this is surely a problem – whatever one thinks of Michael Ellis and Suella Braverman as politicians, that they are nowhere near as experienced legally as previous law officers is something of a drawback – not least because it also has implications for the talent pipeline for the Ministry of Justice brief.
Although there are slightly fewer legal professionals on the Labour side than the Conservative one, both per head and in absolute terms, filling the position of law officer is much easier for Labour politicians at present because there is a greater consensus within the Labour Party about most legal issues, and because Labour lawyers-turned-MPs tend to have legal specialisms that are less controversial, electorally speaking, than their Tory counterparts.
While Cox has come out swinging against the charges, noting that his legal activities are known to his electorate and that his activities have been cleared by both the government chief whip and the attorney general, he may prove to be the last of his kind; and as a result, Conservative prime ministers will struggle to appoint law officers to the House of Commons.
How might that problem be fixed? One simple solution is simply to create a special status for the law officers, so they can be questioned in both Houses of Parliament regardless which one they sit for, though this would upset traditionalists. Either way, for all he has deepened the Prime Minister’s headache this week, the absence of future Geoffrey Coxes is a problem for future Conservative prime ministers.