«I tend to try and avoid booze at lunchtime, so I’m a water person at lunchtime,» he says.
He’s barely put the menu down before he spots a familiar face. «There’s Skye, how are you?»
Gyngell, an Australian who has lived in London for 35 years, and is a doyenne of the British food scene, drops by in her chef’s whites to welcome the High Commissioner. We chat about Australians living in London, and the need to get out of the city and rediscover the sense of space all our childhoods gave us. «I still feel incredibly Australian,» Gyngell says before heading back to the kitchen.
Does she always come and say hello?
«Not always, she must have heard there’s a very famous journalist here,» Brandis responds, switching to charm mode.
When I knew him as a political reporter in the press gallery in Canberra, Brandis as a senator and cabinet minister was combative. In London, he is entirely the diplomat and at pains to stress the transition.
«I’m not going to comment at all on current domestic political issues in Australia,» he says firmly, cutting into his beetroot, with chervil and crème fraîche.
«I drew a sharp line under my political career. I’m practising an almost trappist self-denying ordinance against being a commentator on Australian politics because I am not a politician any more. I am only a political figure in an historical sense.»
For the duration of our 90-minute lunch he stays true to his word, despite my many attempts to draw him on the near extinction of women in the Liberal party, the string of high-profile Cabinet resignations, and even the broader question of whether the expected Shorten Labor government might finally restore stability to Australian politics.
The sole reflection he is willing to make is his own surprise at lasting 18 years in Canberra.
«I thought that I would be the attorney-general in the Costello government and would retire after a few years in that role but the Costello government never happened!»
The «Ruddslide» meant Brandis had to wait a further six years before his dream of becoming Attorney was realised. And it came under not a moderate Liberal leader, but under the conservative Tony Abbott.
While Brandis insists, publicly at least, that his severance from his political past has been as swift as it has been simple, it may not be the case for his former Labor opponents at home. Bill Shorten last week denied this paper’s reports that he had drawn up a «hit list» of Liberal-appointed political appointees an incoming Labor government might sack.
A string of recent Liberal appointees to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal were listed in the story, as was Brandis and his cabinet colleague Joe Hockey, who is the ambassador in Washington. One of Brandis’ last acts as attorney-general was to appoint his chief of staff James Lambie to the tribunal. But Brandis is defiant when pressed on whether «jobs for the boys» has got out of hand and could ultimately cost him personally.
«I don’t know whose been appointed to the AAT lately [but] it has never been my view that because a person worked in politics that they should be regarded as ineligible for judicial or quasi-judicial roles,» he says.
It’s clear this attitude extends to his own posting. Asked if he fears being recalled home or shuffled out of the prized London post, as the Liberal government did to Gillard appointees Steve Bracks and Mike Rann, Brandis says he has no reason to worry, based on his performance in the job so far.
«There was no criticism of the appointment when it was made. In fact, I was the subject of many expressions of good wishes from the Labor side and there’s been no criticism since,» he says.
He also makes much of the «friendly relationship» he has established with Theresa May, a politician renowned for her introversion and disregard for schmoozing. As AG, Brandis and May (as the then Home Secretary) attended several Five Eyes intelligence meetings together.
«When Malcolm [Turnbull] and Julie [Bishop] left Cabinet, I was literally the only person in the Australian government who knew Theresa May,» he said. «Nobody else can say that in Australia.»
«In London and in Washington you have to be somebody who can be on first-name terms with senior cabinet ministers in the UK. A former cabinet minister can do that.»
According to Brandis, this familiarity is already paying dividends.
«Theresa May said to an acquaintance of mine recently, not knowing that this person was an acquaintance of mine, that at the moment Britain’s best friend in the world is Australia.
«She said that only last month at a Conservative party fundraiser, so things are going well in the relationship.»
Brandis recalls being personally summoned by the British prime minister at last year’s Lord Mayor’s banquet.
«I was sitting there and I found my place and was introducing myself to people either side of me when this aide arrived and said, ‘Excuse me, High Commissioner, have you got a moment to speak to the Prime Minister?’» he said.
«I was very surprised by this.»
Brandis recounts being led through Guildhall to meet May, who was preparing to deliver a major speech on Brexit.
«And she said, ‘Oh George, I just wanted to say hello’. And I gave her a big kiss and we chatted away for a few minutes and she introduced me to her husband Philip who I’d not met, and it was just after Malcolm had been replaced as leader so we had a word about that.»
Our mains: red mullet with slow cooked fennel and aïoli arrives without interruption until the waiter returns. «Just a little something from Skye, bitter leaves with a little blood orange and shallot vinaigrette.»
«The food here is so delicious,» says Brandis appreciatively.
Brandis will not say exactly what they discussed on the subject of Turnbull, but he did impart his own words of encouragement to May, who just a few months later faced her own leadership challenge. Brandis says he had been certain she would prevail.
«Having lived through a few of them in the Liberal party I think I was reasonably well placed to get a feel for the dynamic of it. You need to have been a politician to have that sixth sense of the way politicians act under pressure,» he says.
«I once said to my staff, ‘If you want to understand Parliament and what might happen in Parliament, you really need to have two volumes: you need to have the Standing Orders and you need to have the complete works of Shakespeare, because the standing orders will instruct you on the rules, Shakespeare will instruct you on human nature’.»
Given he’s raised the subject of books, its impossible to resist asking how much of his famed library travelled to Stoke Lodge. «Maybe 10 per cent,» he says.
He brought his Shakespeare and his books on Australian political history as he thought that kind of reference wouldn’t be «readily available here».
Brandis regards May as a strong leader with extraordinary personal stamina who should not be written off just yet.
«When you consider the course she is trying to steer, let us just wait and see what the outcome is, because if, for example, she gets the [Brexit] withdrawal agreement through … then everybody will say what a political genius she was.
«You don’t decide whether a boxer is a good boxer or a bad boxer when they’re in the clinches. You at least wait until the end of the round or at the end of the match.»
Contemporary Britain, like May’s leadership, is defined by Brexit. The result of the referendum in June 2016 took Brandis by surprise, although he declines to confirm my suspicion that he was for Remain.
Months later, speculation emerged in Australia (repeatedly denied) that Brandis would be the next Liberal in Australia House, enjoying a front-row seat in what it is arguably the most dynamic time in British politics since the Second World War.
«In fact I think its one of the most important times in Britain’s peacetime,» he says.
«I was at The Spectator’s summer party last June and I overheard a very prominent Tory MP who is one of the main protagonists in the Brexit debate say to someone a sentence that would be literally impossible to utter in Australian politics.
«Talking about Brexit, he said, ‘We haven’t seen anything like this since the 1530s’.»
«So his point which others have made as well, that, short of actual periods of armed conflict, this is the most fundamental breach from Europe since the Reformation.»
Brandis may forgo wine at lunch but evidently not dessert; he opts for ice-cream with tea, although we both leave the honeycomb dabbled chocolate petit fours, defeated by the light but filling meal.
What strikes Brandis is the magnitude of what’s at stake in Britain, yet how relatively devoid the debate is of the «coarseness» that runs through Australia’s most torrid political periods.
«It’s interesting, you have these existential issues like what is the future of Britain and you have these profound disputes on both sides of the aisle, the Conservative party over Brexit and the Labour party over, not just anti-Semitism but that is probably the most dramatic and yet the political discourse continues to be conducted with remarkable civility,» he says.
«It struck me, the degree of belligerence and actual abusiveness that you see in the Australian Parliament, which people use the word ‘robust’ to describe, that doesn’t exist to nearly the same extent in Britain.»
As the one who infamously defended relaxing the Racial Discrimination Act by arguing for the technically correct but politically toxic «right to be a bigot», he does not absolve himself of his own contributions.
«I’m sure I wasn’t one of the worst offenders but I can’t plead to be innocent of the culture of which I was a participant,» he concedes.
As Australia’s man in London, he is not immune from the ongoing fallout from the diabolical decade in Australian politics. He says the most common question from British observers of Australian politics is about the revolving door at The Lodge.
«They tease us sometimes about the frequency of the leadership changes but frankly I don’t think the British at the moment are in the business of poking fun at Australian politics or anybody else’s politics,» he says.
«I think they’ve got enough to be preoccupied with their own politics.»
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Latika Bourke is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in London.