It’s hardly surprising that Boris Johnson appears to be pushing the boundaries of propriety with a resignation honours list that is reported to include a knighthood for his father and ennoblement for some of his closest lackeys. The former prime minister has never been one to follow convention, generally treating rules, whether written or unwritten, as a matter for other people.
Among all Johnson’s scandals, the honours seem almost minor. His father has rendered service to the nation as an MEP and international bureaucrat, making him nominally worthy of an honour. At least, were it not for the allegations of domestic violence (Stanley Johnson is said to have broken his first wife Charlotte’s nose during an argument; he has said he regrets the incident) and sexual misconduct (Stanley Johnson said he had no recollection of meeting Caroline Nokes, the Tory MP, who accused him of inappropriately touching her), which would normally halt an application. Equally, Johnson is not the first PM to honour his family – Thatcher made her husband a baronet, knowing that the title would eventually pass to her son, Mark. And Johnson gave Theresa May‘s husband, Philip, a knighthood in his first honours after succeeding her as prime minister.
Johnson’s little act of filial piety is just another in the dubious history of prime ministers and honours. A century ago Lloyd George was selling them, a knighthood going for a bit less than half a million in today’s money. Harold Wilson’s “lavender list” was controversial for elevating to the lords several businessmen who seemed to have little connection to parliament. In recent years knighthoods have increasingly been dished out to placate grumpy backbenchers and exiled former ministers. A man like Johnson, prone to intrigue and cronyism throughout his career, is unlikely to pull back from what seems improper.
[See also: Is Boris Johnson coming back?]
Yet the increasing spread of political honours casts a pall over the system. Honours are used to do many things. For those in the Civil Service and the military, a bauble is used as recompense for their choice not to desert to the riches of the private sector; they are almost routinely awarded to those above a certain level. Sashes and medals are also handed out to celebrities and sportsmen, giving them a token of establishment appreciation and the government a splash of glamour. Finally, the most popular honours are given to those members of the public who render some distinguished charitable service in their communities. Lumping political appointments on top of these runs the risk of devaluing the brand.
The prestige of honours only endures so long as they are exclusive and deemed to be well deserved. Already the system is criticised for its perceived links to colonialism, particularly the Order of the British Empire under which most are granted. Discredited politicians handing them out to their equally discredited friends and relatives is unlikely to enhance this. Like any club, the honours system will lose its appeal as fewer and fewer people want to join. Just look at how Elon Musk has turned the Twitter blue tick, once a mark of the media establishment, into an $8-a-month paying rube. Johnson has had a talent for degrading most things he touches. His premiership ended in a series of scandals which undermined respect for No 10, for parliament, and for the Conservative Party. There’s little shock that on his way out he is pushing the edges of the honours system, and potentially diminishing that too.