Dishonourable Honours

One of the courtesies extended to outgoing prime ministers, is the convention of allowing them to submit a “resignation” honours list. This allows them to recommend to the Sovereign anyone they feel deserves something special. Beneficiaries have included friends, colleagues, heroes and supporters.

This may sound terribly civilised, but prime ministerial recommendations are often controversial. In 1976, for example, Harold Wilson submitted a list which it is claimed, was compiled by his aid, Marcia Williams. In effect, the so-called “lavender list” – named because of the lavender-coloured note paper on which it was written – was compiled by a relative nobody. If true, It wasn’t playing the game by the spirit of the rules.

Forty years later, David Cameron caused eyebrows to raise when his wife’s hairdresser received an OBE. With all due respect to the good lady, it is doubtful that she would ever have received any honour had Mrs Cameron not been a client.

Now, the disgraced charlatan, Boris Johnson, has brought further controversy on the custom. Not only is his a longer list than the previous two combined, but if reports are true, he is making some ridiculous recommendations.

Firstly, he is proposing that four sitting MPs should be elevated to the House of Lords, but not take their seats until after the next general election. Leaving aside the fact that their Lordships’ house is rather over-filled, this is highly unconventional. It is usual for those who have been ennobled to take their seats at the earliest opportunity. As the UK constitution relies heavily on convention, this is causing much perturbation among constitutional experts.

Then there is the proposed knighthood for Johnson’s father, Stanley, a man who is not uncontroversial himself. Why? What has he done to deserve a Knighthood? Should the King really be asked to bestow any honour on a man whose greatest achievement is siring Boris Johnson? If sporting a man whose inability to tell the truth is matched only by his seeming inability to count his known children is cause for being knighted, one can only conclude that achievement is overrated.

So, what to do about it? Is it enough for Rishi Sunak to block part, or even all of Johnson’s list? He is certainly entitled to do so under the current system. The answer is no. Whether Sunak decides to submit the list in full to the King, or to edit it, this should be the last time a prime minister has any involvement with the honours system.

Unlike many, I’m not in favour of scrapping honours. However, after more than a century of prime ministers bringing the process into disrepute, beginning with David Lloyd George in the aftermath of the first world war, I am very much in favour of changing the way these things are handed out.

First, the resignation list should go. A prime minister has considerable powers of patronage while in office. There is no need for a last hurrah when he or she moves on.

Secondly, an entirely independent body should be established to process nominations for honours, vet nominees, and submit a final list to the King for his approval. Procedurally, this won’t be substantially different to what happens at present. However, those who currently do the job are part of the Prime Minister’s Office.

If these two things were to come to pass, there would be a number of benefits. The results of cronyism would be reduced, the whims and tastes of any given political leader would become irrelevant, and just as importantly, so would a prime minister’s dislike. Boris Johnson’s animosity caused at least one nomination to be blocked.

It is usual for a retiring Speaker of the House of Commons to be awarded a peerage. For the ten years of his speakership, John Bercow might, therefore, reasonably have thought that he was destined for a seat in the House of Lords. Unusually, the Government didn’t make the offer. So the Labour Party nominated him. Because of Johnson’s dislike for the erstwhile Speaker, the latter is still “Mr”, not “Lord” Bercow. Such a petty denial is shameful. One can only hope that this will be rectified soon.

I am not hopeful that the changes I have suggested will be implemented. But they should be. They would dramatically reduce corruption. Honours bestowed, officially by a grateful nation, would be rewards for public service, or achievement, or leadership, or excellence. But they would not be anyone’s quid pro quo while engaged in chumocratic backscratching.

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