Honouring my friends from Number Ten is wrong

Published by The Daily Telegraph (2nd August, 2016)

There is no doubt the leaked list of gongs that David Cameron wants to dole out looks demeaning. There are knighthoods proposed for cabinet ministers who backed him against Brexit and businessmen who donated heavily to the cause. Awards for key aides and advisers, plus one for Jack Straw’s son who led the failed Remain campaign. It is even proposed that two chauffeurs and his wife’s stylist share in the bonanza too.

These proposed resignation honours are one more scar on a prime ministerial legacy already wounded so severely by June’s referendum loss. There are suspicions Tory enemies leaked the damaging list, while Mr Cameron’s successor has said she will not intervene to block his proposals. Overall, this row can only weaken still further the public’s faith in a creaking political system.

Much of the fuss has centred on giving gongs to allies in the failed Brexit campaign and aides such as Isabel Spearman, the former fashion PR publicist who assisted Samantha Cameron. Yet far more corrosive is the impression that rich donors can write large cheques and then receive a knighthood or even a seat in the Lords.

This highlights the corruption that still blights British politics. It may be less naked than in the days of David Lloyd George, when a convicted fraudster received a peerage in exchange for £30,000, but is it really much different when rich donors seem to dominate every honours list? It is only a decade since both main parties escaped prosecution after a police probe into honours involving the arrest of Labour’s chief fundraiser. And there have been a succession of scandals since then.

The fact that a former minister, Sir Desmond Swayne (knighted by his old friend Mr Cameron, of course) can dismiss the latest row by saying honours are a ‘relatively light way’ of paying off political debts is depressing. It shows many MPs remain woefully out of touch with the mood of voters. I know and like several people on Mr Cameron’s list, but such awards discredit politics, reinforcing the notion that it is a higher calling than other work, meaning just doing your job merits state recognition. They debase all the honours handed to Britons who really deserve them.

Yet we can dismiss hypocritical fury from the Opposition. Labour’s pugnacious Tom Watson says this is proof ‘the Tories will always put their own interests before those of the country.’ He is, of course, deputy leader of the party that knighted Sir Philip Green an honour. Harold Wilson was notorious for his ‘lavender list’ when standing down, which included a businessman jailed four years later. Tony Blair was characteristically distasteful in spraying baubles around party donors; a study found every person who gave £1 million to Labour over a four-year period got a knighthood or peerage.

Mr Cameron was unwise to seek to shower awards on so many friends and allies (although suggestions he should have rewarded Brexiteers in his resignation honours are fanciful, given that they caused his resignation). Yet the core problem is not his cronyism but a discredited honours system that remains all too redolent of the eighteenth century, when prime ministers gained power and as parliamentary sovereignty usurped the royal prerogative.

This is why it is such a shame Mr Cameron did not do something he pledged in opposition: to sort out the sleaze that still swirls around Westminster. Attempts have been made to democratise the selection of recipients of honours, but the system remains fundamentally flawed: too much patronage remains in the hands of the prime minister. This can be seen all too clearly when top honours are distributed so lavishly to cronies, donors and as payback for political favours.

There is nothing new in this analysis. It was highlighted in a scathing report by a parliamentary inquiry in 2004, which rightly said the use of honours as a tool of party management casts suspicion on the entire regime. Less than a decade later, another Commons committee said much the same, demanding honours were stripped of political influence to restore trust. Civil servants, MPs added, should not be honoured merely for ”doing the day job’.

Previous leaks have also proved that public fears over the preponderance of celebrities over those who serve local communities are justified. In 2003 it was suggested Tim Henman was honoured just to ‘add interest’ to a dull list. The absence of meaningful reform leaves Britain with a risible system to recognise exceptional contributions to society.

Unfortunately politicians know that reform is needed, but ignore the issue once they are in power. A similar failure can be seen in several other areas, such as drug policy, inadequate social care or the need to build far more houses. But failure on this front means it is not just their reputations, but our very system of government, that ends up tarnished.

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