Speculation Johnson will sack attorney general in reshuffle but offer him commission job
Senior cabinet minister Geoffrey Cox QC, who is expected to lose his job in Thursday’s reshuffle, has indicated he would accept a role leading Boris Johnson’s commission to reform the judiciary.
The attorney general, the government’s most senior legal officer, has been at the centre of speculation that he could be offered the chance to run a major review into “judicial activism” to make up for being sacked in Johnson’s first cabinet reshuffle since his election victory.
Judges have warned that the plan, put forward by Johnson’s senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, could lead to the curtailment of the judiciary’s independence.
Sources say Cox is being targeted by Johnson because he is “not a team player”. He advised the government that it could prorogue parliament in the autumn – a decision that was overturned by the supreme court.
Speaking at an Institute for Government event on Wednesday, Cox said the new constitutional commission would consider both the role of judicial review – which he likened to the “judicialisation of politics” – and the appointment of judges to the supreme court.
He promised there would not be radical reforms in either case. Cox said he was opposed to the highly politicised US selection process of supreme court judges and suggested he preferred the Canadian system.
“Politically appointed judges are completely off the table,” Cox said. “However, there’s a case for looking at how supreme court judges are appointed …There’s a committee of the Canadian parliament that carries out interviews [of candidates].”
A joint committee of the Commons and Lords, Cox said, might give more public confidence in the appointment of supreme court judges, “who wield immense powers”.
He did little to dampen speculation that he would be removed from office. Asked if he would be disappointed to leave his job, he said: “It has been an enormous privilege to do this job. But it is a decision for the prime minister.”
He continued: “There is a case for looking at how supreme court judges are appointed. We need to look at how precisely that is done.”
Introducing a UK “bill of rights”, a cherished project of Conservative lawyers, was something the constitution committee should also consider, Cox said, in order to provide popular “affection” and a “sense of ownership” for the principles under which British justice operates. “I don’t think the [European convention on human rights] attracts so much affection.”
Responding to Cox’s proposals for adopting a Canada-style interview process, Shami Chakrabarti, the Labour shadow attorney general, said: “Whether it’s Brexit or judicial appointments, it would seem that this government is just crazy about ‘Canada style’ deals.
“Geoffrey Cox appeased No 10 this morning with suggested political interviews for supreme court judges and threats to judicial review and the Human Rights Act. But a bucketful of maple syrup won’t sweeten the threat that his far-right government poses to the rule of law.”
Cox called for an increase in investment in the justice system. “There is no doubt that we do need to see a period of investment into the administration of justice,” he said.
Asked about emergency legislation to prevent the automatic release from prison of terrorist offenders halfway through their sentences, Cox said there was a public interest in the change.
“I think there is a plain public interest in this change being made – we’ve had two incidents in recent days and I think that the government is responding to a legitimate and powerful public interest in ensuring that those who may well be a risk will from now on be subjected to a risk analysis before they are released,” he said.