Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was forced today to defend Britain’s judges after a Cabinet colleague sparked a furious row by suggesting that the courts were now seen as “getting involved in politics”.
Mr Wallace intervened after business minister Kwasi Kwarteng, who attends Cabinet, said many people were questioning the “partiality” of judges after a Scottish court ruled that the Government had unlawfully shut down Parliament.
Amid growing concerns among MPs over the Government’s stance on the rule of law, Mr Wallace said: “Of course we respect our judges. Our judges are some of the best in the world. I will defend the independence of our judiciary… they are fantastic.
“But they also sometimes get it wrong, which is why in our own judicial system we have a route of appeal and that is what we are going to do.”
Mr Wallace stepped in after Mr Kwarteng was hit with a backlash after highlighting what he said were concerns among the public about Britain’s courts. He told the BBC: “Many people are saying — I’m not saying this — but many people… are saying that the judges are biased… the judges are getting involved in politics.
“I think that they are impartial, but I’m saying that many people, many Leave voters, many people up and down the country, are beginning to question the partiality of the judges.”
Parliamentarians from all parties condemned his comments. Former justice secretary David Gauke tweeted: “I like Kwasi a great deal but he’s got this badly wrong. This is not how government ministers should speak about the judiciary.”
Former Liberal Democrat leader Ming Campbell QC said the remarks were “ill-judged”.
Three judges at the Court of Session in Edinburgh yesterday ruled that the Government’s decision to suspend Parliament was unlawful, sparking accusations that Boris Johnson “misled” the Queen over the reason for the prorogation, a claim No10 denies.
The Government insists it was closing down Parliament ahead of a Queen’s Speech to focus on domestic priorities, not to “stymie” MPs during the Brexit crisis as found by the Scottish court.
Speaking to Talk Radio, Mr Wallace added: “The reality is we of course differ in our view of the Court of Session’s ruling. Not only do we but the High Court of England took a completely different view a few days before. That was just as significant if not more significant ruling, which is why we are going to appeal to the Supreme Court.”
Former lawyer Alistair Carmichael, now Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, criticised Mr Wallace’s comment as “disturbing”.
He added: “The Court of Session as an appeal court is higher within its own system than the High Court in England.”
One of Mr Wallace’s aides insisted that he did not view the High Court as a higher authority and was talking about the Scottish ruling getting more media coverage than the High Court judgment, which was that the prorogation was not a matter for the judiciary.
The Government’s stance on abiding by the law, and the will of Parliament, has come under scrutiny after ministers left open that it could try to get around new legislation passed by MPs just days ago to block a no-deal departure from the EU.
This was fuelled when a government source responded to the Scottish court ruling by saying: “We note that last week the High Court in London did not rule that prorogation was unlawful. The legal activists choose the Scottish courts for a reason.”
Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland swiftly stepped in to state: “Our judges are renowned around the world for their excellence and impartiality and I have total confidence in their independence in every case.”
Amber Rudd, who quit as work and pensions secretary following the axing of 21 Tory MPs after they paved the way for the anti no-deal bill, said Theresa May’s government had considered proroguing Parliament, but had rejected the idea as “the wrong approach”.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell reiterated calls for Parliament to be recalled immediately, adding that it is even more crucial that it was sitting after the release of Operation Yellowhammer documents.
Speaking at an event on achieving shorter working hours, Mr McDonnell said: “We’ve asked Parliament to be reconvened. The Government has already lost one court case this week and the Supreme Court may well reflect this judgment on Tuesday.”