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10 September 2019updated 23 Jul 2021 9:01am

Is Theresa May’s honours list normal?

Departing prime ministers have no reason not to engage in this practice since there are no consequences to bad behaviour once you're out the door.

By Ailbhe Rea

Theresa May has been accused of “the worst kind of cronyism” this morning, following the release of her list of resignation honours, which sees the former prime minister award peerages and other honours to a long list of at least 20 former aides, as well as party donors and loyal members of her former cabinet.

There are so many points of controversy on the list that newspapers are divided as to what is the headline. For some, it is the CBEs awarded to her two former advisers, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. As joint chiefs of staff to the PM, they were accused of a “rude, abusive and childish” approach to running Downing Street by fellow aides, only to be forced to resign after the manifesto they co-wrote and the campaign they masterminded caused May to lose her majority in the 2017 election.  As one ex-Conservative MP, who lost his seat in that election, tells the Times: “For those that lost their seats in 2017, this will go down like a cup of very cold sick”.

For others, the top line is that May is awarding a knighthood to her former director of communications, only four years after she said that David Cameron’s decision to do the same made her “retch”.

And having briefed in 2016 that her premiership would draw a line under the cronyism of the Cameron years, May’s list also rewards three of her party’s financial backers with peerages, and another with a knighthood. (Unlike the 2015 New Year’s Honours list under Cameron, there is no apparent honour for Theresa May’s hairdresser. There is, however, one for her housekeeper.)

For all of her previous assertions to the contrary, May now joins a long list of prime ministers whose choice of honours appointments is shrouded in controversy. Cameron gave honours to everyone from his hairdresser to his election strategist, Lynton Crosby, while some of his other appointments were blocked by Whitehall on “ethical grounds”. Thatcher gave honours to her cook, her housekeeper, her PA and her “personal detective”, as well as to key loyalists, donors and strategists from her time in office. Harold Wilson’s resignation honours are infamously known as the “Lavender List”, marked by controversial honours for businessmen who were considered antithetical to the values of the Labour Party.

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Most memorably, Tony Blair spent the last year of his premiership under the cloud of an investigation into a cash-for-honours scandal, becoming the first serving prime minister to be questioned by the police about a criminal investigation.  

When Gordon Brown skipped the process altogether, deciding instead to advise on a dissolution honours list, commentators predicted that Blair’s experience would put an end to resignation honours.

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But as May and Cameron have shown, the tradition is alive and well. A prime minister simply won’t care about accusations of hypocrisy or cronyism when they are already out the door.

It is difficult to imagine the thought processes that led Theresa May to settle on these appointments, with such an obvious charge of hypocrisy awaiting her. But the fundamental problem here is an outdated system that enshrines cronyism in tradition. Unfortunately, the list of honours released today is business as usual.