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11 September 2019

Leader: Our honours system rewards failure

Theresa May has emulated her predecessor David Cameron’s dismal conduct by awarding knighthoods to her former director of communications and EU adviser. 

By New Statesman

In 2016, after David Cameron doled out resignation honours to former aides and political allies, Theresa May vowed to set a different example. The award of a knighthood to Craig Oliver, Mr Cameron’s communications director, made her “retch violently”, she said. No 10 briefed that Mrs May would end such tawdry cronyism. “We want an honours system that actually ensures we can recognise when people out there are really contributing to our society and to their communities,” Mrs May declared on 2 October 2016.

Three years later, having left Downing Street rather earlier than hoped, Mrs May has emulated her predecessor’s dismal conduct. On 10 September, she knighted her own director of communications, Robbie Gibb, a former BBC editor; and her EU adviser Olly Robbins. She has awarded peerages to her chief of staff Gavin Barwell, who is also a former MP, and to three other aides.

None of these individuals can be said to have made a distinguished contribution to public life in Britain. Mr Robbins and Mr Barwell were responsible for the Brexit deal that was defeated by a record margin in the House of Commons. As housing minister from 2016 to 2017, in advance of the Grenfell Tower fire, Mr Barwell ignored repeated warnings over fire safety regulations, and the achievements of his political career were written on water.

Not content with this abuse of patronage, Mrs May awarded a knighthood to Geoffrey Boycott, the former cricketer who towards the end of a long career turned his back on England to go on a “rebel” tour to apartheid South Africa, which was then banned from playing international cricket. He is also a convicted domestic abuser. When questioned on his past conviction by the BBC Radio 4 presenter Martha Kearney, Mr Boycott replied: “You can take your political nature and do whatever you want with it. I couldn’t give a toss.”

The honours system – as Mrs May once recognised – the voting system, the botched devolution settlement and the unelected House of Lords are all in need of urgent attention: far-reaching constitutional reform should be at the top of the agenda of a new government. Mrs May’s dishonourable honours list coincided with the suspension of parliament for five weeks, the longest prorogation since 1930. This act was cynically intended to prevent MPs thwarting the government’s attempt to push through a no-deal Brexit by 31 October. That Boris Johnson failed was because of the fortitude of the 21 Conservative MPs who put country before party – losing the Tory whip in the process – and defied the Prime Minister.

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MPs have done their duty and protected British democracy from a rampant executive and an erratic and dishonest Prime Minister. But the UK’s political system remains dangerously fragile. A further extension alone does not end the risk of a no-deal Brexit, which would damage Britain’s international standing and likely push its economy into recession. The spectres of Scottish independence and Irish reunification – the legacy of the UK’s unresolved imperial past – now haunt Westminster, as the British state fragments. 

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Speaking for himself

In June 2009, John Bercow, a maverick Conservative MP, was – with Labour support – elected Speaker of the House of Commons. The MPs’ expenses scandal had corroded people’s trust in democracy and Mr Bercow’s mission was to restore the reputation of parliament. A decade on, this “activist” Speaker is finally vacating the chair. He has reason to be satisfied with his tenure. Backbenchers have been empowered. Ministers are held more rigorously to account before MPs and it has become much harder for the executive to ignore the legislature. And parliament’s hours are more amenable to those MPs who have families.

However, our parliamentary democracy has been especially diminished by the Brexit debacle and Mr Bercow’s pompous, sometimes aggressive manner has demeaned his office. Multiple accusations against him of bullying (which he denies) remain unresolved. And his interventions have, at times, been too partisan. His successor should resist the temptation to follow his polarising example and would do well to emulate Speaker William Lenthall, who, in 1642, told Charles I: “I have neither eyes to see nor tongue to speak in this place.” Would that Mr Bercow had always heeded this advice.

This article appears in the 11 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos