When Boris Johnson is not looping the loop in a Typhoon fighter jet, chucking literal or metaphorical hand grenades, or holding a lavish wedding celebration while the rest of the country struggles with the cost-of-living crisis, he is preparing one final outrage before leaving office in disgrace. The former Prime Minister is planning to stuff the House of Lords with, it is reported, dozens of cronies, donors, Brexit cheerleaders and assorted sycophants as a reward for services rendered or yet to come.
The list is said to include the likes of Paul Dacre, who has turned the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday into shameless Johnson mouthpieces; Nadine Dorries, Johnson’s most obsequious apologist in the House of Commons; Ben Elliot, the Conservative party’s co-chairman who arranges access for big donors to Johnson and other senior Tories; Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of a former minister in the Russian president Vladimir Putin’s government who has given the Conservative Party nearly £2m and once paid thousands of pounds to play tennis with Johnson; Allegra Stratton, the former Downing Street spokeswoman caught joking about a Covid lockdown party held in No 10; David Ross, a founder of Carphone Warehouse who helped to arrange a holiday in Mustique for Johnson and his wife; Michael Hintze, a billionaire Tory donor; and Andrew Roberts, the Brexit-supporting historian.
The outgoing Prime Minister, who awarded his brother a peerage in 2020, has apparently considered doing the same for his father, Stanley, this time round. Who knows? Perhaps he’ll add Matt Hancock, Owen Paterson and Chris Pincher to the roster too.
It is not just the names on Johnson’s resignation honours list that look likely to leave much of the country spluttering with rage. It is the sheer number of them, and the extraordinary conditions that his advisers allegedly want to attach to the peerages.
Writing in the Guardian on 29 July Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, said he had seen a confidential document prepared by CT Group, the lobbying company run by Lynton Crosby, Johnson’s election guru. This proposes that Johnson appoint between 39 and 50 new Tory peers, and – in Brown’s words – that he “ride roughshod over every convention and standard of propriety”.
The House of Lords already has well over 800 members, making it the world’s largest parliamentary chamber after the Chinese National People’s Congress (the Commons has a mere 650 MPs). In 2017 the Burns Committee attracted overwhelming cross-party support for reducing the House of Lords to 600 members. Johnson took office professing support for that goal, but has already appointed 86 new peers before this latest batch. Theresa May created 43 during her three years in No 10, including 13 in her resignation honours list. David Cameron ennobled just eight after resigning.
Still worse, the Crosby document proposes that Johnson require a written pledge from each new peer to attend and vote with the government on contentious legislation such as the bill to disown the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Brexit agreement. Those who complied would be “rewarded” with lucrative posts and other baubles. Brown calls this “straightforward bribery”.
The document’s cynicism is breathtaking. It suggests that the scale of the appointments could be sold to the public “on the grounds that the ‘People’s Brexit’ can only be delivered by such a wedge of new Tories” – the Lords being a Remainer stronghold. Moreover, the media’s attention could be distracted from this gerrymandering by the inclusion of a few celebrities. Remember the ennoblement of Ian Botham, the Brexiteer cricketer, in 2020?
It is true that most prime ministers use the honours system to reward aides and supporters, but seldom on this scale, and seldom so egregiously. This whole ploy is classic Johnson.
No matter that the upper house is supposed to act as a relatively independent check on the government. No matter that its red benches are supposed to be filled with non-partisan peers with experience and expertise capable of stalling, if not blocking, flawed legislation. From the outset, this Prime Minister has refused to accept legitimate constraints on his power. Hence his sustained efforts over the past three years to neuter the supposedly independent judiciary, civil service, BBC and electoral commission.
Johnson’s plan is already generating considerable opposition from across the political divide. Lord McFall, the Lord Speaker, has warned that any attempt to swell the ranks of peers still further “undermines public confidence in our parliamentary system”. His predecessor, Lord Fowler, a former member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet, said that such mass appointments would bring “the whole system into some kind of contempt” and called them “potentially disastrous”.
Baroness Hayman, another former Lord Speaker, said the plan was “part of a trend to trash constitutional norms”, and added: “I’m not sure Boris Johnson understands that having a challenging House of Lords actually improves government policy and improves legislation.”
The cross-party House of Lords Appointments Commission is responsible for vetting all nominees for their propriety, but there is little it can do if he chooses to ignore its advice. He ignored its objections to the ennoblement of Peter Cruddas, the former Conservative Party treasurer who gave the party £500,000 three days later and had been ensnared in a cash-for-access controversy (Cruddas is now leading a “Bring Back Boris” campaign). He ignored the security services’ warnings about ennobling his friend Evgeny Lebedev, the owner of the Evening Standard whose father is a former Russian KGB agent.
It remains to be seen who does make Johnson’s final list, but it seems unlikely that he will pass up this last opportunity to show a finger to his critics and to throw one last log on to the bonfire of decencies over which he has presided as prime minister.
This article was originally published on 1 August 2022. Today (8 June 2022), it has been reported that Rishi Sunak is ready to approve Boris Johnson’s honours list within weeks.