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David Cameron is set up to take a beating over the appointment of up to 40 new Conservative peers. Some of the reasons are bad and others good – or at least fair enough. Let’s disentangle them.
First, because of a belief that members of the Upper House should be elected rather than appointed. This is the view of most of the Commons – to judge by events during the last Parliament – and much of the country. You may or may not agree with it. But what is unquestionable is that Lords reform is part and parcel of constitutional reform more widely. Arguably, it is impracticable without a written constitution to separate the roles of the two houses – which raises a mass of other issues, not least the future of Michael Gove’s plans for human rights reform. And certainly, it is now bound up with English Votes for English Laws, in which case it is sensible for any change to wait until the Commons has pronounced. In any event, the Government has no mandate for such sweeping change, not to mention insufficient consent to get it through Parliament.
Second, because the Lords is too big. The new peerages will push the Upper House’s membership to the best part of 900, and it is already the largest Upper House in any democracy, exceeded in size only by China’s National People’s Congress. This is why we called last autumn in the ConservativeHome Manifesto for the number of peers to be “greatly reduced”: if peers don’t attend the Upper House, they should leave it – preferably voluntarily but, if necessary, on compulsion. The Conservative Manifesto itself committed a majority Tory Government to addressing issues “such as the size of chamber and the retirement of peers”. The Prime Minister thus does have a mandate for cutting the Lords down to size, or at least using his bully pulpit to urge it to do so itself.
Third, because of the claim that Cameron is about to pack the Upper House with cronies and donors. This helps to explain why parts of Fleet Street pursued Lord Sewel with such enthusiasm: the hunt was a way of trying to get at the Prime Minister as well as Tony Blair, whose appointment Sewel was. But it is not wrong in itself for Prime Ministers to appoint aides or party members for political work, since it provides no more or less a legitimate reason for ennoblement than any other kind of work. Nor is Cameron mistaken to seek to raise Tory numbers in the Lords. What matters is who the new peers are. It would be unfair to complain that the Prime Minister is insensitive to political balance within the Party when political honours are concerned (as the knighthoods conferred on Sir Gerald Howarth and Sir Roger Gale remind us).
Nor would it be reasonable to complain that only party members in his own circle go to the Lords. Consider, for example, the deserved elevation of Elizabeth Berridge, who worked tirelessly for the Conservative Christian Fellowship and for the Party more broadly. But Downing Street has not been adept at recognising the contribution of the wider Conservative movement – that’s to say, of people who have little contact with the Party, if any at all, but have helped to shift the country and our culture to the centre-right, or have striven to. They may not knock on doors, but they make the weather. They may not bring in votes, but they change the culture – however partially or slowly. They make a difference in a country whose commanding cultural heights, to use a Corbynesque phrase, lean to the centre-left – in the universities and among the judiciary and in much of the police force and within the BBC.
Our test for the Prime Minister’s list will be whether it is one that recognises the work of members of this wider movement. My own test would be that they must be of real distinction, have made their contribution over a long period and have written at least one book if they are in the ideas business. Here, more or less off the top of my head, are five names. They reflect my own bias as a working journalist; others would start from the same place but take a different route – in other words, choose different people. One of them I know well, more I know less well, and most I know scarcely at all. I have no idea whether or not any of them would welcome being sent to the Lords, or even accept a peerage. But some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them…