Boris Johnson’s Effort to Honor Allies Puts Glare on House of Lords

Famous for its gilded furnishings, ceremonial gowns and archaic procedures, Britain’s House of Lords holds the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest legislature outside China.

Now, the unelected second chamber of the British Parliament has found itself at the center of an acrimonious rift over efforts by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson to add his friends and allies to its already swollen ranks.

Like all departing prime ministers, Mr. Johnson was entitled to nominate candidates for “resignation honors,” which also include knighthoods. But when three people on his nominees list did not make the final cut, he accused the current prime minister, Rishi Sunak, of blocking them.

One of those disappointed — Nadine Dorries, a former cabinet minister — claimed she was obstructed by “posh boys” because of her working-class background. And when Mr. Sunak said in public that Mr. Johnson had lobbied him to overturn the way nominees were vetted and approved, Mr. Johnson retorted that this was “rubbish.”

While the debacle revealed for the first time in public the depth of the animosity between Mr. Sunak and Mr. Johnson, it also delivered a fresh blow to the already shaky reputation of the House of Lords.

“The extraordinary thing about this is the damage it is doing to the Conservative Party and to our public institutions,” said Catherine Haddon, program director at the Institute for Government, a research group specializing governance, noting the questions it raised about the resignation honors system. “The fact that this is so transparently one of Johnson overtly rewarding those around him just shows what a problem it is.”

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Mr. Johnson had wanted him “to do something I wasn’t prepared to do.”Credit…Neil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

The controversy over the House of Lords may seem esoteric, but membership comes with benefits in addition to a fancy title. Known as peers, Lords members can claim up to 342 pounds (about $433) as a daily allowance when they attend sessions. They hold their seats for a lifetime and don’t have to stand for election. Their role is to shape and revise laws after they are debated in the House of Commons.

But the House of Lords now has 777 members and a chamber too small to accommodate all at the same time. Most of its (predominantly male) members are at the end of their careers, with an average age of 71.

For prime ministers, having the power to create peers (not just when they leave, but also during their time in Downing Street) provides considerable patronage.

Among those honored by Mr. Johnson are Charlotte Owen, an adviser to him who becomes the youngest member of the House of Lords at 29; and his spokesman Ross Kempsell, 31.

In addition to nominating peers, Mr. Johnson secured lesser honors for other allies, including Kelly Jo Dodge, his parliamentary hairdresser.

He is also widely reported to have pressed, unsuccessfully, for a knighthood for his father, Stanley Johnson, while several of those embroiled in the scandal of lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street during the Covid-19 pandemic were also honored.

The biggest political difficulty centers on members of the House of Commons who were nominated by Mr. Johnson for elevation to the House of Lords. They had to promise to relinquish their seats in the Commons, but three — including Ms. Dorries — were under the impression that they could remain in the Commons until the next general election, effectively delaying their peerages.

That would have avoided elections in each of their constituencies, contests that Conservatives could have lost.

Nadine Dorries, a former cabinet minister, angrily accused Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his political aide of blocking her deliberately.Credit…Phil Noble/Reuters

The issue was discussed at a meeting between Mr. Sunak and Mr. Johnson, but both came away with different understandings of what was agreed.

Asked about the rift on Monday, Mr. Sunak suggested that Mr. Johnson had wanted him to bend the rules for the approval of nominations or — as he put it — “to do something I wasn’t prepared to do.”

When she was left off the final list, Ms. Dorries angrily accused Mr. Sunak and his political aide James Forsyth of blocking her deliberately. It was, she told Talk TV, a story “about a girl from Liverpool” having something taken away from her by “two privileged posh boys,” she said, referring Mr. Sunak and Mr. Forsyth.

Ms. Haddon, of the Institute for Government, said that Downing Street could have been more proactive in keeping Ms. Dorries informed, but that it was up to Mr. Johnson to keep her abreast.

“Nadine Dorries should have been aware that this was a problem, and if it was Johnson that was giving her assurances, that goes to questions that have been raised in many forums about Johnson’s behavior when it comes to telling the truth and being open and honest with people,” she added.

One of the three nominees who failed to make the final list resigned his seat in the House of Commons anyway, meaning it is up for grabs and may be hard for Conservatives to hold. There will also be a contest for the seat that Mr. Johnson held until he quit Parliament on Friday, after seeing draft conclusions of an investigation into whether he had misled lawmakers over the lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street. Publication of that document is expected on Thursday.

Having said she was quitting the Commons, however, Ms. Dorries has yet to do so formally, keeping the prime minister waiting on her next move.

But for Mr. Sunak, the really bad news is that the furor over honors may not be over.

Mr. Johnson was succeeded briefly in Downing Street last year by Liz Truss, who was prime minister just for 44 days. Her resignation honors list is still to come.

A photograph released by the British Parliament showing an official taking of a bill from the House of Lords to the House of Commons.Credit…Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Back to top button