Both the honours system and the House of Lords are worth defending. Every set of resignation honours seems to make both more difficult to defend. This is a problem it would be worthwhile the Government trying to address before Labour do it in a vulgar and modernist fashion.
The upper house and honours are separate systems, which pose different challenges and likely have different solutions. But inasmuch as there is controversy over resignation honours, they share a common theme, which is how much of a political dimension is proper in appointments and awards.
Of the two, the question of the House of Lords is the more pressing. A knighthood or OBE is ultimately a bauble, and costs no more than the price of materials and the hit taken to the prestige of the system through ill-judged nominees. Elevating someone to the peerage, on the other hand, makes them a legislator, albeit a second-order one, and a job for life to boot.
The House of Lords is a good thing. The more familiar one is with how it actually operates, the less likely one is to want to abolish or drastically overhaul it. It has actually probably grown in importance over the past couple of decades, as changes to the House of Commons (especially programme motions and truncated sitting hours) leave their lordships doing more and more of the detail work of making legislation fit for purpose.
Unfortunately, the current system is inherently unstable. With no mechanism to balance the chamber, parties are left with little option but to bid up their own share of the peerage with wave after wave of political appointments. This need is exacerbated by the conduct of some peers, who fundamentally don’t believe in the institution and insist on carrying on like the senators they wish they were.
Worse still, the Tories have combined this with a failure to actually make use of the Lords as a reservoir of ministerial and Cabinet talent. It remains a route for allowing very able people to serve as Secretaries of State who aren’t inclined to put themselves through the thankless slog that being an MP is becoming. Recent Conservative governments, not exactly overburdened with stand-out ministerial talent, would have done well to use it.
There are various ideas kicking around for what to do. To my mind, the one that would tackle this issue whilst preserving the current character of the Upper House would be to decouple the peerage from entitlement to sit, cap the numbers, distribute an allotment of seats to the government and opposition in such a way as to give the crossbenchers the balance of power, and then allow each caucus to fill their seats from amongst their membership, much in the way the hereditaries do now.
That way, you could give your deputy chief of staff or ex-parliamentary assistant the title of lord or baroness if you really wanted, but it wouldn’t automatically entitle them to anything else.
As for honours, ultimately it is probably right for politicians to have an explicit role in the honours system. There is plenty of room in the system to ensure that worthy people from all manner of walks of life are properly recognised, and it isn’t a burden to bestow a bit of metal and ribbon on former ministers and advisers at the same time.
However, all this does the credibility and integrity of the system does therefore depend in part on politicians and the political process. And given the recent instability and high level of churn in Number 10, one can see how successive resignation honours might start to strain the public’s patience.
This is especially true if they are ever-more expansive, as Boris Johnson’s list has proved to be; little wonder that Lord Bew, the head of the Lords appointments commission, reportedly told Liz Truss and Sir Keir Starmer that recent appoints had put him and his committee in an “uncomfortable” position.
House of Lords reform is a major undertaking and one this Government is scarcely going to have the time or energy for. But on the narrower question of resignation honours, Rishi Sunak could propose a simple fix: that only a prime minister who has served at least a full term – say four years, or one parliament – should be entitled to a resignation honours’ list.
This step would help to restore the idea as one of rewarding long service, rather than a last shot at patronage for whoever happens to pass the threshold of Downing Street.
This would, of course, mean foreswearing his own chance at a resignation honours unless he somehow wins the next election. But it would be a sensible reform, hard for Labour to oppose, and could even give him cover, should he wish it, for shooting down Johnson’s.