An honours list that is indisputably problematic
Perhaps it is fortunate that former classical scholar Boris Johnson never took much interest in equestrianism because – on the evidence of his rumoured resignation honours list – he might have found it amusing to make his horse a consul, in a satisfying echo of Caligula, with whom the former prime minister has so much in common.
Almost as absurd is his reported wish to make his father, Stanley, a knight of the realm. If the allegations about Mr Johnson senior’s private behaviour are anything to go by, he is an unsuitable candidate to be presented to the King as a paragon of chivalry, a perfect gentle knight worthy of such an honour. On his merits, Mr Johnson would be unlikely to see much preferment. A long record as an occasionally eccentric environmentalist, a few years in the European parliament, and some writing don’t really amount to a large enough hill of beans to justify the title of “Sir Stanley”.
Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May gave their spouses a hereditary baronetcy and a knighthood respectively, but at least Denis and Phillip had shared in the burdens of power. Stanley Johnson has not. His principal contribution to public life was to
father Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, which has proved something of a mixed blessing to national life. Some might feel Stanley Johnson should be liable for reparations.
Plainly, Mr Johnson’s latest, and final, honours list is proving problematic for all sorts of reasons. It is unusually large – some 100 names, not all of them sharing the family DNA – and contains some names that are controversial. Two unusually young and inexperienced nominees for the Lords worked for Mr Johnson in No 10, which is hardly a reason to suppose they bring any great specialised knowledge or expertise to the upper house; and neither have they made much contribution to, say, the arts, entertainment, medicine or charity.
Then there are the rumoured political nominees seeking passage to the Elysian Fields of the house of peers – Nadine Dorries, Alister Jack, Alok Sharma and Nigel Adams. It’s routine for former ministers and cabinet ministers such as these to go to the Lords but their elevation has been unusually delayed, possibly until the end of the parliament. This is uncharted constitutional territory, as they would, presumably, be nominated to the palace by Rishi Sunak, rather than the personal recommendation of Mr Johnson, as is the convention. Thus, Mr Sunak would be responsible for these and possibly other more controversial appointments that he might not be happy with.
On the other hand, Mr Sunak can ill-afford the four parliamentary by-elections that would follow their elevation to the peerage now, all of which might quite conceivably be lost. Mr Sunak’s majority, inherited from Mr Johnson’s freakish general election in 2019, still looks large on paper, but such is the party’s factionalism that he cannot spare a single Commons vote. Mr Johnson’s proposed honours aren’t the first to visit puzzlement and outrage upon the system. Tony Blair was questioned as a witness by the Metropolitan Police during the “cash for honours” affair in 2006, and again in 2007. The infamous “lavender list” drawn up by Harold Wilson and his political secretary in 1976, drafted on scented pastel notepaper, contained names that had done remarkably little for socialism, and one new life peer who was to end up in jail.
Further back, David Lloyd George was so blatant in the sale of honours that he employed a broker, and they carried a price list, and one with a remarkably contemporary feel. In today’s money, about half a million pounds for a knighthood, £2m for a baronetcy, and peerages starting at about £3m for an “entry level” hereditary peerage or barony – getting to be a viscount or marquess would be a more costly and elaborate affair. In the more distant past, ennoblement accompanied adultery with a monarch.
The honours system has been cleaned up over the centuries but each generation brings its own abuses and its own innovative links to political funding. Though it might not be the most pressing property for this or the next government, there is a strong case for further reform and fresh legislation that updates laws dating back to 1921 and 1886.
Passing a law against nepotism would be no easy thing – there remain many hereditary peers in the upper chamber, and a few dynasties in the Commons – but, as with other important institutions, the public has to have at least some confidence that honours have a discernible link with merit.
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