John Humphrys: Time to Scrap the Honours List?

June 09, 2023, 9:36 AM GMT+0

By the time you read this it is possible that we shall officially know the names of the people Boris Johnson has chosen for his resignation honours list. Possible but by no means certain. All retiring prime ministers are entitled to nominate a list of those they consider fit to be offered honours ranging from a humble BEM to a knighthood or even membership of the House of Lords. The list is meant to be a secret until it is officially announced, but the Times has been told that Johnson has handed his to the Prime Minister and Mr Sunak has approved all the names. Even more controversial is the practice itself. It has been greeted with almost universal condemnation. No less a figure than the Speaker of the House of Lords, Lord McFall, has warned that the honours system may no longer be ‘fit for purpose’. Do you agree?

The Times claims – and there has been no denial from Number Ten – that there are fifty names on Johnson’s list including MPs who are nominated for peerages. That means there would have to be by-elections. Most Conservative MPs are horrified at that prospect, given the Labour lead in the opinion polls and that one of the seats in question has only a marginal majority.

The list has been widely condemned for two other reasons. One is that Johnson is seen by many as having been forced to resign in disgrace and should not enjoy the privilege of being able to honour those he favours. The other is that it’s simply inappropriate in our supposedly egalitarian society that people (like civil servants) should be honoured simply for doing their jobs. Jobs for which they have already been amply rewarded.

One Whitehall source has said that they expected the list to be published within the next fortnight because Sunak is keen to ‘clear the decks’ and move on. It’s reported that he has not spoken directly to Johnson but it seems he has no intention of blocking the list – even though it’s reported that he has serious misgivings about it. That might explain the long delay in Johnson delivering it. After all, it’s eleven months since he left Downing Street.

It’s hardly the first time there has been controversy over a prime minister’s resignation honours list. Harold Wilson’s was called the ‘Lavender List’ because of the scented paper on which his political secretary Marcia Williams wrote it. It’s believed it was as much her list as his. It included some businessmen with extremely questionable reputations. When David Cameron published his, the leader of the Liberal Democrats Tim Farron said it contained ‘so many cronies it would embarrass a medieval court’. As for Boris Johnson, he has already shown he’s not averse to helping friends and relatives. He gave a peerage to his brother Jo when he was PM and is said to have wanted a knighthood for his father Stanley in this new list – himself a controversial character in his own right because his late wife claimed he had struck her. The Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev, who had a penchant for buying newspapers and throwing very grand parties, has also been given a peerage by Johnson. .

Some constitutional experts are deeply concerned about elevating MPs to the upper house. James Mitchell, professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh, says the very notion of awarding a ‘deferred peerage’ to sitting MPs is, at best, constitutionally dubious because it ‘blurs a boundary that exists separating membership of the two chambers’. Mitchell says: ‘It adds to the list of constitutional infractions perpetrated or attempted by Boris Johnson…. Few people have done more, wittingly or unwittingly, to highlight weaknesses in the British constitution and make the case for reform than he has. If we fail to take note and appropriate action, then we can hardly complain if any future prime minister pushes beyond the bounds of constitutional propriety… The more that people like Boris Johnson and Liz Truss insist on stuffing the Upper House with their mates and their donors, the harder it will become for Sir Keir Starmer (should he become prime minister) to resist calls for reform of the Lords.’

The news website Tortoise Media points out that the House of Lords is ‘not a bridge club.’ It is, it says, the second most important part of Britain’s legislature and it adds: ‘By convention, ex-prime ministers nominate lists of new members. Also by convention, serving prime ministers wave them through. Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have shown repeated disdain for convention when it suited them and are now relying on others not to. Their hypocrisy could destroy what remains of the system’s credibility.’ And it asks this: ‘By what rationale are these people being elevated? What have they done to deserve the reward and the responsibility? There is no checklist of attributes, and the authorities have limited power of veto. The only rationale is the whim of the person choosing.’

The chief executive of Transparency International, Daniel Bruce, weighs in too. He tells Tortoise the Lords is a ‘system of patronage that is vulnerable to corruption’ He notes the ‘catalogue of coincidence’ that has resulted in 15 of the last 16 Tory treasurers being elevated after donating more than £3 million each.

But Johnson’s list is more complicated than just money. It’s also about unwavering loyalty.’

Other critics point out that Johnson’s list is notable not only for those who are included but those who were expected to be honoured but have been removed or demoted. Guto Harri is one of them. He became very close to Johnson as his director of communications when Johnson was the mayor of London and when he moved to Number Ten. But he blotted his copy book when he made very embarrassing claims in a podcast recently about Johnson’s behaviour – including that he once threatened to punch Emmanuel Macron, the French president. Harri was expected to get a knighthood but has now been downgraded, it’s reported, or dumped altogether. Michael Gove has also reportedly been dropped from the list for refusing to support Johnson running for PM a second time after Liz Truss’s brief reign.

So, one way and another, the reception for the Johnson list has been unfavourable at best, downright hostile at worst. Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, had already said it was impossible for the list to go ahead due to Johnson facing fresh accusations relating to Covid rule breaches.: ‘With the disgraced former prime minister now facing new allegations and under multiple investigations, there should be no question of Rishi Sunak approving honours for his cronies and cheerleaders. The prime minister should refuse to do Boris Johnson’s bidding.’

As for the Times, which broke the story, its leading article questions the very concept of our honours system. It is, it says, a mystery to most Britons, its workings and criteria opaque. And when it does surface in the public consciousness ‘it is often because of some dubious award to a political donor or a grating celebrity.’ It says, Rishi Sunak should do more than ‘reform the geography of the honours system; he should reform it wholesale.’

A lifeboatman, says the Times, ‘may risk his life year in, year out. But he will wait in vain for the knighthood bestowed on a No 10 spin doctor. Prime ministers should enjoy no right over honours. Baubles bestowed for favours or mere slavish loyalty debase the system. So it is with the habitual granting of high honours to senior civil servants. These are dispensed frequently and invisibly. Permanent secretaries, some of whom sit on honours selection committees, routinely pick up the title of knight or dame to add to gold-plated pensions. And diplomats can look forward, depending on rank, to the ascending delights of the Order of St Michael and St George, CMG (Call me god), KCMG (Kindly call me god) and GCMG (God calls me god). And for what exactly? Doing one’s job. As others do.

‘The British love of hierarchy, more hidden now, is alive and well in honours. There is a baroque collection of orders and medals, all carefully graded. At the bottom is the humble British Empire Medal, rising through M, O and CBE to the prized “front of name” titles that can ease one’s entrance to the boardroom or airport VIP lounge. And at the summit of this imperial edifice is the life peerage, the ultimate form of settlement for a political IOU.

‘The Cabinet Office makes much of the need for “inclusivity” in honours. This misses the point. One cannot “profile” or “quota” individual service. The country needs a simplified and transparent honours system supervised by non-government boards based around the country. And Liz Truss’s resignation list should be the last. Honours are for courage, selflessness and going above and beyond. Not for back-scratching, time-serving and bungs.’

Do you agree? And if you do how should the system be reformed? Maybe just a single honour for outstanding public service and a separate award for conspicuous acts of bravery or self-sacrifice? Or maybe just get rid of the system altogether?

Let us know.

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