Perhaps it could have been even worse. Given that inclusion in Boris Johnson’s first big splurge of peerages clearly has nothing to do with merit, he might well have given one to Chris “Failing” Grayling for his many disservices to British public life.
But the list, slipped out on a Friday evening (31 July) so it garnered less attention, is still shocking. The Prime Minister could so easily have done the decent thing. He could so easily have appointed a few wise, experienced and deserving people to do good work in the upper chamber. Instead, he has chosen to reward cronies, Brexiteers, family, Tory donors, time-serving Conservative MPs and Labour rebels with peerages that pay £162 a day for remotely attending a meeting (£323 a day in normal times), plus expenses.
The head of our self-styled “people’s government” has once again shown himself to be cynical, shameless, contemptuous of public opinion and utterly disdainful of the national interest – as opposed to his own narrow self-interest. To judge by the comments on the Telegraph, Times and ConservativeHome websites, even Tory supporters are disgusted.
As for Johnson’s professed zeal for reform, the House of Lords is the world’s largest parliamentary chamber after the Chinese People’s Congress. The last thing this bloated institution needs is 36 new members. The Prime Minister has openly flouted a cross-party consensus that its size must be reduced.
The inclusion on Johnson’s list of three prominent Conservative Remainers – Ruth Davidson, Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond – is pure window dressing and internal party management. If Johnson considers Clarke and Hammond worthy of peerages now, why on earth did he strip them of the party whip last autumn?
What is Ian Botham doing on the list, except to generate an easy and distracting headline for Johnson? He was a magnificent cricketer, and has raised millions for charity, but his skills do not obviously include the scrutiny of government legislation. Does anybody seriously imagine he would have been given a peerage had he not been a vocal supporter of the Leave campaign in 2016?
The same goes for Gisela Stuart, Kate Hoey and Frank Field – three former Labour MPs nominated not by Jeremy Corbyn or Keir Starmer, the past and present Labour leaders, but by Johnson as a reward for supporting Brexit. In a similar vein, two other former Labour MPs, Ian Austin and John Woodcock, are rewarded for quitting Labour in protest at Corbyn’s leadership and subsequently backing the Conservatives.
And so the list goes on. Jo Johnson is a Remainer who resigned from the government last September over its Brexit shenanigans, but that apostasy has been overlooked because he is the Prime Minister’s brother. We should be thankful, perhaps, that Johnson did not add his father, Stanley, or sister, Rachel, in his nepotistic zeal.
Michael Spencer and Aamer Sarfraz are big Tory donors. Veronica Wadley was editor of the Evening Standard when that paper backed Johnson’s campaign to replace Ken Livingstone as London’s mayor in 2008. Charles Moore is Johnson’s old mucker at the Telegraph and Spectator.
Why Johnson has ennobled Claire Fox, a former Brexit Party MEP, arch-libertarian and controversialist, whose past commitment to “free speech” has included membership of a communist group that expressed support for the IRA and defending on radio the right of Gary Glitter to download child pornography (both positions she later disavowed), is a complete mystery. Was he seeking to assuage Nigel Farage, the Brexit Party’s leader? Or to goad him?
Most egregious of all is the inclusion of Johnson’s friend Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the Evening Standard, the Independent, and a pet wolf called Boris. Just two weeks after parliament’s intelligence and security committee warned about the considerable influence of Russian oligarchs in British public life, not least through their links to members of the House of Lords, the handing of a peerage to the son of Alexander Lebedev, a Russian businessman and former KGB agent, beggars belief.
Just as Johnson has used the prime minister’s unconstrained powers of patronage to reward his cronies, so he has punished his enemies. In an act of pure malice that flew in the face of centuries of parliamentary tradition he refused to nominate John Bercow, after the former Speaker defended parliament’s right to hold the government to account during last year’s Brexit battles.
Also overlooked were good men like Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, who made the mistake of warning a little too loudly of Brexit’s damaging economic consequences.
One other observation: Philip May, the former prime minister Theresa May’s husband, received a knighthood for “political service”, just as Denis Thatcher did. Why have no prime ministers’ wives – Samantha Cameron, Cherie Blair, Norma Major, Sarah Brown – been honoured in that way?
The names on Johnson’s list are offensive to the ordinary people that he professes to champion, and to the many peers who work hard and conscientiously to improve our national life. But so is the length of that list, which will increase membership of the Lords to nearly 830. That is 160 more than 20 years ago and compares to upper chambers in France, the US and Germany of just 348, 100 and 69 members respectively.
In 2017 the Burns committee set out a detailed plan for reducing the chamber’s size to 600. Theresa May accepted that plan, appointing only 43 new peers during her three years in No 10. Johnson has wilfully ignored it in what Lord Fowler, the Lord Speaker and former Tory cabinet minister, angrily labelled a “massive policy U-turn”.
And so Johnson swells and perpetuates the “establishment” for which he professes such disdain at election time. Unless, of course, his borderline corrupt list is part of some supremely Machiavellian Dominic Cummings plot to bring the Brexit-averse Lords into such disrepute that it, too, can be swept away by his revolutionary fervour…