Greasy Pole: Attack Dog? Or Barking Mad?
Any Honourable member who came into the House through inheriting a seat left vacant by the retirement of an independent, blue-blooded Old Etonian will have devoted some thought to the best way of Making A Name For Themselves. Epsom and Ewell in the lushly arboreal county of Surrey has been palaeocrystic in its loyalty to the Conservative Party. Between 1978 and 2001 it was represented by Archibald Gavin Hamilton Kt PC who was knighted in 1994 and then eventually made a life peer in 2005 as Lord Hamilton of Epsom, of West Anstey in the County of Devon. At 6 feet 6 inches he was the tallest MP, an early recruit of the Conservative Monday Club and chairman of the 1922 Committee. Among his other junior posts was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. And oh yes; he now plays bridge for the House of Lords team.
Hamilton’s resignation left the Tories of Epsom and Ewell seeking a replacement. Among the hopefuls there was Chris Grayling – if they were prepared to overlook the embarrassing fact that he had once been a member of that chaotic spasm the Social Democratic Party. He had trodden the well-worn path of Cambridge, TV journalism, management consultancy and the obligatory candidacy in some impregnable fortress of the provincial Labour Party. He was chosen as the candidate and in the 2001 election he had a majority some way above 10,000. In the Commons he soon attracted attention with junior jobs in Transport, Work and Pensions and the Home office. Whatever else this experience offered him it was a valuable opportunity to establish a reputation – which the Tories badly needed then – for determined aggression.
That was a time when the Blair governments were persistently vulnerable to hostility from any ambitious predator and Grayling fitted this role well enough to earn himself the title of ‘attack dog’, undeterred by the fact that he would be subjected to the same treatment if the Tories were to get back into power. In 2005 he attacked Cherie and Tony Blair, and in 2007 Gordon Brown, for breaches of the ministerial code in their foreign travel. And among the most dramatically newsworthy, in 2005: ‘I am astonished that Mr. Blunkett has broken the Ministerial Code on yet another occasion. This is getting beyond a joke’ – which persuaded Blunkett to resign from a governmental post for the second time in a year. It all went a long way to solidify Grayling’s standing as the Tories’ attack dog, helping them back to their rightful place in power.
Grayling’s appointment after the 2010 election as Minister of State for Employment encouraged him to turn his attention to other targets. For example those hordes of idle, manipulating layabouts who, rather than submit themselves to compliant exploitation, lived by dishonest claims for state benefits and so almost bled the City of London to extinction.
In 2007, during his time in opposition, Grayling had said that a problem for the next – presumably Tory – government was that the benefits system was causing ‘billions of pounds’ to be lost to fraudulent claims but in fact most of this was due to departmental errors so that less than £1 billion was in question. In another field there was the award of a lucrative contract to administer some ‘Welfare-To-Work’ schemes to Grayling’s preference the firm Deloitte Ingeus after they had made a donation of nearly ￡28,000 to Grayling. And there was the matter of his expense claims, in which he spread the cost of extensive improvements in his flat in Pimlico over two years so that he could claim the full amount in total. As a whole these matters, together with many others of similar style, do not support any image of Grayling as a minister conforming to the same style of living and contributing as he seeks to impose on the rest of us.
In September 2012 Grayling was promoted in a reshuffle to join the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor. This change was not universally welcome; in March 2010 he had almost brought about his own disappearance from the gaggle of aspiring promotion prospects by the protests greeting his approval of landlords choosing to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples. In what is known as the Criminal Justice System there were similar reservations for in August 2009 he had upset the police and local councillors when he likened the crime in Moss Side, Manchester to what was depicted in Baltimore by the American TV series The Wire as’urban war’. In fact there was little similarity between the two cities; the police said that gang-related shootings were down by 82 percent and the Manchester Evening News reported that there had been no such murders during the previous year –a pretty awful situation but nothing like as bad as Grayling alleged. There was also a distinct, strongly expressed, opposition to his appointment from the lawyers, still smarting from the cuts in legal aid payments, because they interpreted the fact that Grayling was the first Lord Chancellor without any legal qualifications as a message that the law was now ‘negotiable’.
So there could be no surprise that Grayling turned his attention to the prison system and what goes on in it and what is expected of it. His policy was summed up by one of his staff as ‘Offenders can’t expect something for nothing any more’. And it turned out that ‘something’ included books mailed to prisoners by their family, which are now banned. One of the objectors to this restriction was Eric Allison, prison correspondent of The Guardian, who some years ago was released on licence from a life sentence. Allison ascribes his turning point to the opportunity to read, which separated him from the nearly 50 percent of prisoners who struggle with a reading age of or below that of an 11 year old: ‘I suddenly thought where have you been all my life? I just devoured books’. It went on from there, over the years until he came out a changed man.
Can we expect anything as dramatic and impressive from our Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling? The attack dog . . ? Perhaps just one more thing of note: he is now known among his staff as Failing Grayling.