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12 July 2022

Abolish the resignation honours list before Boris Johnson makes a mockery of us all

What prestige can there be in a damehood if Nadine Dorries gets one?

By Martha Gill

It would be easy to do. We did it when Tony Blair left office, and again for Gordon Brown. Resignation honours. They’re a demeaning farce. We need to get rid of them – but this time for good.

On Monday it was confirmed Boris Johnson would be going ahead with a reportedly long list of knighthoods and appointments to the House of Lords on his departure as Prime Minister. There is speculation that he is to make Nadine Dorries a dame, and that he is planning to give his father, Stanley Johnson, a knighthood. This after he was forced from his post by his own party for corruption and lying.

The rumours have already produced a mild outcry. Of course they have – it looks corrupt. Johnson would be capable of curdling the cleanest institution. But this time it’s not all his fault: resignation honours are a tradition that simply breeds cronyism. In fact, a similar outcry happens, on the dot, with every departing prime minister. The otherwise scrupulous Theresa May gave hers to a brace of sycophants and failures, “handing out peerages like sweeties to the same Tory advisers who got us into this Brexit mess”, as the SNP MP Peter Wishart put it at the time.

David Cameron’s list, meanwhile, was a who’s who of failed Remainers, among them Will Straw, largely responsible for bungling the In campaign. A number of Cameron’s proposed recipients were also reportedly blocked on ethical grounds. Even the very first resignation honours, in 1976, had the violet tinge of venality about them – they are known satirically as the “Lavender List”, for the rewards Harold Wilson handed out to wealthy businessmen in spite of the Labour Party’s principles.

The real problem with resignation honours, besides risking making the country look like a medieval laughing stock, is that they reward all the wrong things.

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Imagine if, when sacked, you were allowed to hand out valuable accolades to a selection of those responsible for making the decision of whether or not to keep you. It’s not only an incentive for people to support you, it’s an incentive to support you louder and louder as the end of your employment gets nearer. The honours system acts then as a motivator for the “nodding dogs” in government who might otherwise have turned against their incompetent master long ago. It jams up the system. Dorries never wavered – even when her colleagues resigned en masse last week. She looked ridiculous, but there was rhyme to her reason. Now she will probably get a valuable reward, something that will add pomp and gravitas to whatever she does next. 

[See also: The race to become Britain’s next Prime Minister has never been so wide open]

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The second bad incentive concerns the honours system more generally. True, it has a dubious history, but it is also one of the few ways we have of acknowledging those who perform outstanding acts of service to their communities outside of a normal career path. I think, for example, of the late activist Deborah James, who was awarded a damehood after raising millions of pounds for cancer research in the last few months of her life. She called the days around her award the most “surreal, mind bowing and humbling” of her life. By the time of her death her fund had raised £7 million. That Nadine Dorries may soon boast the same honour thoroughly demeans it for others. (It is similarly laughable that a few weeks ago Johnson was supposedly considering giving an honorary knighthood to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, “for bravery”, when he had also recently knighted Gavin Williamson, who ran Johnson’s 2019 leadership campaign.)

The third bad incentive is even broader. It applies to all of us. Seeing the cronies of a departing prime minister get the country’s highest accolades is deeply demotivating for everyone. The Financial Times’s Andrew Hill has equated the practice of giving honours to underperformers such as Williamson, who was sacked as defence secretary for allegedly leaking a decision of the National Security Council, with the sorts of bad reward systems that poison whole businesses. Libraries of research, he writes, show that business leaders should align incentives with performance. Lavishing awards on failures does the very opposite, undermining the reward and along with it any motivation people might have for succeeding in the first place.

Resignation honours in particular are designed to reward failure and poor political decision-making. A departing prime minister is, by definition, a failure, and therefore to a certain extent so too will be those to whom they are most grateful. Giving knighthoods and peerages to those responsible for propping up a dwindling career is an unedifying spectacle, almost guaranteed to induce a bout of what’s-the-point-ism. Why work hard, or try to do good in the community, when this is the sort of thing the country honours? Little wonder if resignation honours send all of us into a grumpy slump.

Winston Churchill knew this when he was offered a knighthood following his electoral defeat in 1945. “How can I accept the Order of the Garter from my sovereign when his people have just given me the Order of the Boot?”, he said to friends. Johnson often refers to Churchill as his hero. He should take a leaf from his book.

[See also: Has any prime minister done more damage than Boris Johnson?]