If you wanted to be kind, you could say that the attorney general is no worse than any other politician on the make: she advances her career by telling her party what it wants to hear. If you wanted to be unkind, you could say that the attorney general is a deluded dogmatist who feeds the paranoia of the Tory party’s base while betraying her professional principles to please its dictatorial leaders.
I want to be unkind because the British constitution (what’s left of it) says that the law officers should not be like other politicians. The lord chancellor, as head of the Ministry of Justice, swears an oath promising he “will respect the rule of law”. The attorney general is the government’s barrister, who, in the words of the Conservative MP and former solicitor general Oliver Heald, must make sure that “ministers act lawfully, in accordance with the rule of law”.
Yet Suella Braverman, the attorney general, and Robert Buckland, the lord chancellor, have told Boris Johnson’s ministers and the civil service that they are just fine with them breaching international law and tearing up the EU withdrawal agreement. The Treasury solicitor, Sir Jonathan Jones, resigned rather than allow Johnson to besmirch his good name. But further up the hierarchy, the law officers have surrendered without a fight, without even wanting a fight, without even grasping why there needed to be a fight. As they were always going to. Their willingness to bend to his will is why Johnson appointed them in the first place.
Johnson understands the fatal weakness of liberal democracy. Like a gangster eying up the cops as he moves into a new territory, he knows that its defences count for nothing if he can control law enforcement. Let the strongman take power and he can subvert laws and conventions, however immutable the naive imagine them to be.
The attorney general must make sure that “ministers act lawfully, in accordance with the rule of law”. Yeah? Really? Look what Johnson’s gone and got himself: an attorney general who says he can do what the hell he likes! Johnson has chosen well. Braverman has been auditioning for the role of useful idiot for years and bears as much responsibility as Johnson does for our collapse into gormless authoritarianism.
People should pay more attention to the tales she spun about herself as she built her career on the right. Appealing to the prejudices of Tory party members on the Conservative Home website, Braverman cast herself as a victim of progressive snobbery. “When I was involved in my University Conservative branch at Cambridge in the early 2000s, Blair-supporting friends were constantly baffled by my political allegiance. Starting my career as a young barrister in London, I was the shy Tory in my chambers of ‘right-on’ human rights lawyers. Despite the social stigma, I was inspired by Conservative values of freedom from an interventionist state, personal responsibility and choice.”
This is the sob story that has taken Britain out of the EU and taken Johnson into Downing Street. Liberal elitists block anyone who challenges them and look down their dainty noses at the solid, traditional values of good old England. To read Braverman you would think she had fallen in with the young Cherie Blair at Matrix Chambers or another metropolitan nest of “activist lawyers”. Barristers, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity for fear that the attorney general’s office would blacklist them, said she went to 2-3 Gray’s Inn Square (now Cornerstone) when she arrived in London in 2005. Far from being a chambers of “right-on” lawyers, it was filled with regular barristers whose number had included Patrick Ground, a former Tory MP. She and her colleagues were not fighting the police and the Home Office. They were dealing with ordinary disputes about development plans and the licensing of pubs and betting offices. Important work, no doubt about it, but hardly the frontline of the struggle for civil liberties.
When she moved on to a large set of Birmingham barristers, her profile boasted that she was a “contributor to Philip Kolvin QC’s book Gambling for Local Authorities, Licensing, Planning and Regeneration (2007)”. Not much to boast about to you and me, but in the legal world it would be considered a significant achievement for a young lawyer to be a part of an authoritative legal textbook. Unfortunately, Braverman’s name does not appear anywhere in the volume.
The Conservative press built her up as a Premier League barrister rather than a jobbing lawyer who did everyday parole and immigration cases. She had defended “the Ministry of Defence in the Guantánamo Bay inquiry”, according to reports. . Her own website says she was “involved”.
Private Eye has tried, I have tried and lawyers have tried to find a record of her defending the MoD at a Guantánamo inquiry. We are still trying.
I emailed Braverman’s office and asked what her work at the Guantánamo inquiry had been. I asked about her contributions to legal textbooks and for the name of her “right-on” human rights chambers. I gave 24 hours notice and phoned to check if her staff had received the email. At the time we went to press, she was unable to comment. Braverman’s resentment speaks for itself, however. It is not the resentment of the poor or oppressed but of the privileged who don’t quite make it to the top. Perhaps in her mind, liberal lawyers did sneer at her or would have done if they had the chance. Perhaps she would have been saved from a run-of-the-mill legal career if only she had been given a break. Amid the confusion in the stories she tells about herself, Braverman’s self-pitying, unproved belief that the legal system, with its Human Rights Act, judges appointed without political interference and respect for the rule of law, has somehow stigmatised her rings true. She is taking her vengeance now.
• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist