I have a sure-fire way for Rishi Sunak to boost his standing with the nation. The Prime Minister should state now that he will veto Boris Johnson’s resignation honours list in its entirety and Liz Truss’s too.
It is beyond parody that leaders who disgraced their office, and had to resign from it, should enjoy the privilege of handing out “honours” to their cronies. It would be a good idea for Sunak to say at the same time that he will not put up a list either when he goes, setting the precedent to end the practice for all Prime Ministers, whether they have been good and faithful servants of the people or scoundrels.
The practice of promoting people above each other by giving them titles has long been abandoned in primary schools, yet it persists at the heart of British politics. It would be an easy hit for Sunak. There would be much joy in the land if toadying hacks and generous friends are left out in the cold this time, noses pressed to the shop window of preferment.
The news that official negotiations are underway to try to get Johnson to cut his list from 100 to 50, with a likely downgrade for his rackety father Stanley from Lord to mere Knight, only highlights the absurdity of the situation. Johnson has already made his brother Jo a Lord, and the rumour mill suggests his sister Rachel is still in with a chance of an honour. Ex-Prime Ministers of today enjoy more powers of patronage these days than absolute monarchs in their heyday.
Over at the constitutional monarchy, King Charles III can only reshuffle the titles historically in the monarch’s possession. So for his 59th birthday Prince Edward takes over from his father as Duke of Edinburgh. This is surely a much more fitting use of ceremonial baubles than the clamour of commoners to be ennobled.
Everyone knows that there are too many members of the lords for any useful purpose. Yet recent leaders have stuffed the chamber further as they make their way to the lecture circuit and advisory boards. For the century from Lord Rosebery to Margaret Thatcher, exiting prime ministers kept the number of peers they created in single figures – even after Alec Douglas Home started appointing women, and after Harold Wilson introduced life peerages.
John Major promoted 10 to the Lords, then Cameron ennobled just about his entire chumocracy with 16, only to be topped by Teresa May with 19. Neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown had resignation honours lists.
Resignation honours are the most personal of those dished out during a premiership. Many of those are just business as usual, with an eye on trying to boost the governing party’s voting strength in the Upper chamber. 374 peers were created during Blair’s period in power, slightly edging the 361, by Thatcher (201) and Major (160). Brown managed a mere 34. Since then, Conservative Prime Ministers have struck right back: Cameron 245, May 43, Johnson 87, Truss – yes Truss – 29.
Since honours lists typically come round at least twice a year, those with longer terms in office tend to give out more peerages. But as Truss demonstrates there is no rationing against time served.
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I confess that my attention tends to wander during Professor Jim Al-Khalili’s The Life Scientific interviews on Radio 4. This week however I did catch the engineer and baroness Julia King give one of the best justifications for the Lords. She pointed out that it has a higher and more representative number of members qualified in STEM subjects than the Commons. I was almost persuaded. But of course, without the flummery, there would be no bar on parties nominating such people to do the work of revising legislation in a smaller, proportionate chamber, which need not be directly elected.
Everywhere else in the democratic world people of distinction manage to get their voices heard without having to don ermine and grace the red leather benches.
Besides, the award of a peerage is no longer technically an honour; it is a party-political convenience. Mostly MPs or officials are sent to the Lords to get them out of the way. Those who have given financial aid to parties or political causes or politicians are the other main group. It is an unaccountable system, especially since Boris Johnson chose to override the scrutiny panel in the case of the Tory donor, Lord Cruddas.
When Harold Wilson’s controversial resignation honours finally emerged weeks after he had left office, it was said to have been drafted on lavender coloured note paper by his political aide, Marcia Williams, a.k.a. Baroness Falkender. More than 100 Labour backbenchers publicly dissociated themselves from it. A Tory MP jeered “why hadn’t he gone the whole hog and ennobled his pet labrador, Paddy.” And a Labour colleague is reported to have remarked “How typical of Harold to make such a graceful exit and then do this on the doorstep.” There has been progress since then. Johnson left the vomit and the empties inside Number Ten.
I doubt Sunak will take my advice. He is a figure of the establishment which likes to maintain that the honours system is valuable. The promise of gongs can be a useful inducement for some people. The Lords is the top of that tree with the added bonus of providing what amounts to a pension for those who bother to attend.
Unlike those in the Lords, the royal family are not lawmakers. The elevation of Edward to a royal Dukedom is a more appropriate use of titles and patronage, which are the very stuff of a hereditary monarchy.
The new Duke of Edinburgh has suffered all the indignities of being the Queen’s youngest son, never even the “spare” in touching distance of the top job. His mediocre C and two Ds at A level were greeted with the headline “Prince Egg-Head” on the front page of The Sun. His tribulations in the Royal Marines, at the behest of his father, were closely chronicled and his callow attempts to connect with It’s A Royal Knockout were understandably mocked. A topless photograph of his fiancée was published. His Earldom was the lowest rung of nobility the Queen could have handed out. Even after he shouldered the burden of heading the useful Duke of Edinburgh’s Award for his father, sources close to Charles let it be known that he was not guaranteed to inherit the title to go with it. Only to bestow it as a gift now, alongside the sop of royal titles for Harry and Meghan’s offspring.
Through all this the Wessexes have carried out their royal duties diligently. Neither Edward nor Sophie, nor their children, have become the subject of Royal tabloid news, unlike his brother Andrew or his nephew Harry.
So, congratulations Your Grace or Royal Highness or whatever. Let titles stay with the Royals and out of politics.
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