The Ministry of Justice has become something of a ministerial black hole lately.
The brutalist doorway to the department seems to gobble up the careers of those who enter with the remorselessness of a giant waste-disposal unit.
Dominic Raab, Brandon Lewis, Sir Robert Buckland – all have donned the Lord Chancellor’s traditional gold-trimmed robes in recent years, only to see their parliamentary roles reduced to twiddling their thumbs and warming their behinds on the government backbenches.
Before that, David Cameron and Theresa May upset the notoriously tough-to-please snoots in the judiciary by appointing a succession of (shock, horror!) non-lawyers. Michael Gove, Liz Truss, Chris Grayling were each given a crack. None exactly set the department on fire.
Mr Grayling, as I recall, was such a bungler he had to be shunted off to be Leader of the House. How terrifying to think he might have been called upon to perform the ceremonial duties Penny Mordaunt carried out so consummately at the Coronation.
New Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk took his first Justice Questions today
HENRY DEEDES: The Ministry of Justice has become something of a ministerial black hole lately
You’d no more entrust Mr Grayling to hoist a weighty ceremonial sword aloft for an hour or so than hand Lord Prescott a bag of chocolate bon-bons for safe keeping.
Since Mr Raab’s exit, the latest minister to slurp from the MoJ’s poisoned chalice is Alex Chalk, a figure with the spindly frame of an NBA basketball player.
Mr Chalk is one of those MPs tipped for a Cabinet position over the past couple of years, but nevertheless he remains something of an unknown quantity in Parliament’s scorpion-infested corridors.
Today, we got a chance to take a closer look at what he’s made of when he took his first Justice Questions.
How’d he do? Well, the first thing to note was his unfailingly courteous manner. One of the charges against Mr Raab was that he had a tendency to be somewhat gruff. Too gruff by half, according to the Civil Service snowflakes.
Mr Chalk, by contrast, is a model of courtly manners. Each response to a question, however curt, he began with a dainty ‘I’m so grateful to my Right Honourable friend’, or ‘I thank her for the important work that she does’.
During Mr Chalk’s days as a prosecutor, dewy-eyed jurors must have swooned under such charm offensives.
The delivery, too, was free from the usual wobbles we hear at the despatch box. No ums, no ers, in his responses. And there was a welcome absence of horrid corporate-speak. Instead, he was as slick and fluid as a can of Castrol GTX.
Over the course of an hour, we heard the usual grumbles about court backlogs, human rights law and the availability of legal aid (or lack of it – nothing irritates all these former lawyers in Commons than seeing their learned friends being denied their spondoolicks).
HENRY DEEDES: Following Dominic Raab’s (picture) exit, the latest minister to slurp from the MoJ’s poisoned chalice is Alex Chalk, a figure with the spindly frame of an NBA basketball player
Mr Chalk, though, provided the session with a classy injection of pizzazz. At one point, he described trial by jury as ‘the very lamp of our liberty’ which provoked admiring coos in the press gallery.
Meanwhile, opposition MPs seemed to appreciate they were now dealing with a sharper, shrewder performer.
SNP justice spokesman Stuart McDonald graciously acknowledged Mr Chalk was a ‘measured, principled parliamentarian who is very serious about the rule of law’. Even shadow justice secretary Steve Reed, who fancies himself a bit of an attack dog, seemed happy to confine himself to circling his new opponent cautiously for the time being.
Back in his constituency, things are said to be looking precarious for Mr Chalk. His Cheltenham seat is vulnerable, with Lib Dems eyeing it ravenously. But if he can cling on to it, who knows where his career might head next. One to watch, as the tipsters say.