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Alastair Campbell’s Diary: The battle facing the Treasury Devil

The government has landed itself in a legal mess over the Northern Ireland protocol

Image: The New European

“The Treasury Devil” – sounds like a great title for a political blockbuster movie. No, not starring George Osborne or Rishi Sunak, though Osborne’s austerity was pretty devilish, and a Tory chancellor now presiding over record-high taxation, soaring inflation and stunted growth surely has to be devilishly incompetent.

In reality, the Treasury Devil is one of the most unusual job titles in public service. It is the name given to the hotshot outside lawyer brought in by the government to deal with really tricky legal issues. Current holder Sir James Eadie QC. Think a taller, balder version of Mark Rylance. Casting done.

Right now tricky issues don’t come much trickier than the legal mess the government has landed itself in over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

If, as is likely, the government ends up in court over it, then Eadie would be the man to defend them. Which could make the tricky situation even trickier… because he clearly thinks the leg on which the government is standing is about as reliable as a Boris Johnson promise to a wife to stay faithful, a colleague that their promotion is just around the corner, or a country that there were no lockdown parties and Brexit will have no negative impact on trade, travel, jobs or the Northern Ireland peace process.

You may remember that when the Protocol issue first became a problem for the government they said they might have to break international law in a “specific and limited way”. Big mistake. It led to the advocate general and the treasury solicitor resigning. Guess what? People who had devoted their lives to the rule of law didn’t much enjoy being asked by a bunch of Brextremist charlatans to play fast and loose with the rule of law.

The lesson the government took from this was not “don’t break the law”, but rather “if you are going to break the law don’t be so stupid as to admit it”. So Operation Break The Law proceeded, but alongside Operation Find A Lawyer Who Says It Is Lawful To Break The Law.

And guess what – they found one! Her name is Suella Braverman. By all accounts, she was never much of a lawyer. But in a government where Nadine Dorries can be culture secretary and Dominic Raab deputy prime minister, if you’ve passed a few exams, think that Brexit is going well and Boris Johnson is a cross between George Clooney and Winston Churchill, well, you too can become attorney general, Suella.

She came up with something called “primordial significance”, insisting the Good Friday Agreement takes precedence over the Protocol, and the UK single market with no border in the Irish Sea (the one they demanded and agreed to as part of the oven-ready deal but now see as a devilish EU plot) takes precedence over the EU single market.

In less polite government and legal circles, my man in the know tells me, it is referred to as “BBS” – the first B stands for Braverman; BS = BS. And it only stands a chance of working if there is no official advice to the contrary. So they decided NOT to ask the Treasury Devil, out of fear that he might give such contrary advice.

Well, they kind of asked him, because one of the rule of law people insisted they had to. But they asked him to “assume” that the policy was lawful. He did so because that was the instruction given, but he did so in a way that makes clear he thinks the exact opposite. Anyone who has read his comments is left in no doubt that he is backing those who have suggested that Braverman’s advice “lacks credibility, is not legally solid, is very difficult to defend”.

This now presents the wonderful prospect of Eadie standing up in court to defend the government, with everyone knowing that much of the case against them has flown from his mighty brain and careful pen. What a scene! James Graham – are you busy? I might have a good writing job for you.

When the ill-named James Cleverly was summoned to the Commons to explain all this he hid behind the well-trodden line that “we never talk about legal advice to the government”. In a normal functioning government this might work. But we don’t have one of those. Because this lot leak incontinently.

So… Coming soon, my booming cinema advertising voice is now telling you – the next chapter in the Treasury Devil franchise. Starring Sir Kenneth Branagh as Boris Johnson. And Mark Rylance as The Devil. It’s a battle between right and wrong. A battle for the soul of a once-great nation. And it’s a battle the Devil. Must. Win.

Talk of the Devil takes me neatly on to God, and the archbishop of Canterbury, whose book on reconciliation is next on my reading list, after I get through my latest German homework read, one of the Gereon Rath novels by Volker Kutscher. If you have seen Babylon Berlin, you will know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you should.

I sometimes feel like I am Justin Welby’s pet atheist, as in addition to sending me his books, the archbishop regularly invites me to dos and services at Lambeth Palace, at one of which I met the brilliant (overworked, underfunded) Pentonville chaplaincy and mental health team with whom I now keep in touch.

The archbishop is living proof that just because you were educated at Eton, it is not inevitable that you end up as a narcissistic weirdo, but that you might actually believe in public service. He knows a lot about reconciliation, not merely from his encyclopaedic knowledge of The Bible, but because he has worked in difficult reconciliation situations, political, religious, humanitarian, personal, in different parts of the world.

Inside the book was a note asking me if I would mind submitting a question, on the theme of reconciliation, for a film he is making to go with the book. I asked how a democracy can reconcile itself with having at its head an elected leader who lies to us habitually, and who is so regularly in breach of several of the 10 commandments. I look forward to his answer, just as I look forward to reading the book.

In other book news, no sooner had I called here for an English translation of the biography of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, by German journalists Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges, than I get a note from Polity Books saying that it is happening, and will be out in September. I will forgo my commission on the condition that they send an early copy to TNE’s editor (the real one, I am just “editor-at-large”), who might fancy it for serialisation.

If my generation of interest around it leads to us being gazumped by a title with deeper pockets, then we can return to the issue of commission! Viel Glück. Es ist ein ausgezeichnetes Buch. You’ve got to love Piers Morgan. OK, I will rephrase that.

You’ve got to love the way he rises so easily to any bait I put out there.

On the day I was sent data showing that there is now no stadium on the planet big enough to accommodate the number of people tuning in to “The Rest Is Politics, with me Alastair Campbell, and me, Rory Stewart”, I also read that the numbers sticking with Piers’ much-hyped and expensively advertised TalkTV show would leave thousands of empty seats at the Emirates. When I tweeted these two facts, he came back with lots of whataboutery about Iraq. Then as he bit harder on the bait, we got this: “When I eventually launch my own podcast it will blow yours to smithereens and most others too.”

He may have ended his love affair with the wretched Trump. But he has started to tweet like him instead!

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