Going out with a bung
One of Boris Johnson’s final acts as prime minister may yet be to create another 39 members of the House of Lords. Doing so, the Institute for Government’s Dr Hannah White argues, would make the UK Parliament’s second chamber so big, only the Chinese National People’s Congress is larger.
Why is he doing it? It’s framed as an attempt to help redress the balance between the south east and left-behind regions of the north and the midlands. In fact, it looks like a political move aimed at easing the passage of controversial Conservative legislation, which has endured an unusually torrid time during his misrule.
It also amounts to a bung. The loyalty of those individual peers would be rewarded – according to a secret report drawn up by Sir Lynton Crosby’s CT Group – with CBEs, plum roles in support of the government, or lunches and dinners at Chequers – a bribe so banal it would scarcely turn the head of most Instagram influencers.
It would be one last crooked heist for a prime minister whose corruption in office is the most egregious since before the second world war.
Bigger yes… But better?
It would be fitting for Johnson’s final orgy of malfeasance to take place in the House ofLords. It is bloated, anti-democratic, out-of-touch, indolent, stinks of corruption, and – in at least one instance – raises concerns over national security.
Ours is not merely the largest upper chamber in the western world, but – even before Johnson’s final binge of appointments – is larger than the second and third largest combined, and by some distance. The scores on the absurdly ornate doors are France 348, Egypt, 300, United Kingdom, 775. Japan, a major world democracy with roughly double Britain’s population, requires an upper chamber only a third of that size.
With no formal upper limit on the number of peers, in practical terms the House of Lords is a trough that can be extended as far as political shamelessness and public disgust will permit.
By spending his final days pumping yet more pus into this antique boil, Johnson would be exiting the same way as he governed. Despots usually prefer statues but if a whole gallery of them were to be commissioned in tribute to the character and qualities of Boris Johnson, it would look a great deal like Britain’s upper chamber.
The complexities of democracy in practice have been debated since Solon strode the stones of Athens, but the most fundamental principle is accountability to the people; the very word “democracy” comes from the Greek “demos” (people) and “kratia” (power). No member of the House of Lords faces such accountability, and to this day, some members of the upper chamber were quite literally born to rule.
For good governance, a healthy democracy does require a significant amount of expertise within the legislature, and appointment of qualified experts is not an intrinsically damaging idea. In practice though, to suggest expertise is the primary basis for appointment to the House of Lords is laughable, and the words “Baron Botham of Ravensworth” are a sufficient reminder of why.
As recently as 2018, only one peer had a background in manual work (Baroness Blood), half the number who had a background working as royal family staff. Regional distribution, cynically invoked by Lynton Crosby, is also woefully distorted. In 2020, just 4.6% of the House of Lords hailed from the North West, compared to 11% of the country’s population. Unsurprisingly, London and the South East were dramatically over-represented, with 43.6% of the Lords hailing from that affluent corner of the country, compared to just 27.2% of the population.
Gender balance – dismal even in the House of Commons where just 35% of members are women – is truly pathetic in the upper chamber, where as of May 2022, just 28% of members are women. While this is an improvement on the 21% figure from 2010, it is still woeful in a country where 51% of the population are women.
Life beyond the reach of democratic norms is apt to leave any politician out of touch, but this alone doesn’t explain the Narnia-levels of reality-detachment the Lords bring to the table.
Nice work if you can get it
Indolence is commonplace in the Lords. Despite the generous incentive of £323 per day of parliamentary work in the House (plus travel expenses, naturally), in 2020/2021 members on average attended for just 68 of the 164 official sitting days available.
Few jobs are generous enough to offer 96 days off per annum, but even this is not enough for some. In the same session, over a hundred Lords turned up fewer than ten times, and between the two of them, Jeffrey Archer and Alan Sugar could only muster three attendances. Lord Sugar’s attendance record may stick in the craw of anyone who has suffered the sound of his rants about working from home, but in turning up for work twice, he still put in two more appearances than 62 of his fellow Lords.
Woody Allen once said that “80% of success is showing up.” By this metric, at least 8% of Lords are total failures.
Having said all this, the nation would perhaps be better off if some Lords stayed away permanently, such is the stench of corruption that exudes from their ermine. A seat is widely understood to be available in exchange for £3,000,000 in donations to the Conservative party. 15 of the last 16 Tory party treasurers are now ensconced on the red leather benches.
One of these peers, of course, enjoys that dubious privilege despite the impotent protestations of the House of Lords Appointments Committee. This is perhaps what we should expect from an organisation whose one-time chair of the privileges and conduct committee had to resign in disgrace after a cocaine binge littered with caustic remarks about his colleagues, or where unabashed nepotism sees the PM’s brother and best pal given cushy gigs for life despite an unremarkable parliamentary career and a racist mayoral campaign.
Concerns over basic moral hygiene are one thing; in the Johnson era, it appears national security concerns are deemed similarly irrelevant. To give him his full title, Evgeny Lebedev is ‘Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation,’ although if we were to hammer home the point, we might call him Baron Lebedev, Scion of a Hostile Foreign Power,
Time for the demolition men
The fundamental truth about the nation’s upper chamber is that it does not exist for the benefit of the British people. Instead it exists as a vehicle for cronyism and patronage. It exists as a retirement home into which biddable confederates can be stuffed, and as a lucrative club whose membership fees help fill party coffers. To improve the health of Britain’s democracy, the next tranche of people entering the House of Lords should be a demolition crew.