Many of the people who have been prime minister in the past six years seem to have internalised the idea that we’re sleepwalking towards an apologetically British form of tinpot dictatorship. After all, each of them has spent a remarkable amount of their time in office saying out loud: “I really don’t think the public wants an election.”
Perhaps the arc of history is bending towards them being right. As discussed here previously, a recent poll found that 61% of 18- to 34-year-olds supported running the UK with “a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with parliament/elections”. Which doesn’t feel like the most ringing endorsement of whichever form of democracy we currently practise (constitutional experts/dadaists are invited to get in touch to clarify). We have an unelected second chamber and the second mandate-free prime minister in just over two months. Meanwhile, the former health secretary who spent most of the pandemic telling everyone how to behave has absconded from his post as a member of parliament, and is currently poised to pocket a rumoured £400,000 fee to enter the I’m A Celebrity jungle, where he claims to want to talk to the public about dyslexia. That’s going to be difficult with his mouth full of kangaroo cock. But we are where we are.
Against this increasingly necrotic political backdrop, many will feel too far gone to react angrily to a Boris Johnson resignation honours list that includes peerages for young No 10 aides (one of whom, Charlotte Owen, is said to be in her late 20s); for Nadine Dorries; for the former Tory mayoral candidate who threw a lockdown party; for MPs who are “deferring” taking their ermine till after the next election so as not to risk unfortunate byelection results for the governing party; and for the guy who paid for Johnson’s wildly expensive holiday to Mustique that the then prime minister repeatedly lied about.
Indeed, all of this ennoblement is being pushed while Johnson is himself being investigated by the privileges committee on a charge of misleading the house, for which the penalty could be his removal from it. Like I say, many will simply decline to lose their rag about him stuffing the Lords. At some point, the smart move becomes saving your energy for the militias.
As for the specific defects of this honours list, in many ways they aren’t exactly new. We have long seen politicians and political aides given peerages simply for doing their jobs – the equivalent of a participation medal. Albeit in this case for people who participated in one of the most shambolic periods of government in living memory. And arguably there’s nothing wrong with becoming a peer in your late 20s – people have been doing it for centuries, typically after their father succumbed to consumption or suffered a hunting mishap following rumours of an affair with a senior Whig.
Indeed, Johnson’s allies stress that the former PM has in fact proffered a “slimmed-down” list, compared with what he had originally planned. Yet that is solely because – as we now know only too well – the recently ousted Johnson actively seeks a swift return to Downing Street. Trust me, had he decided to draw a final line under the dignity-aborting era that was his political career, this list would have contained everyone from his toddler son to the hairdresser who paints over Lord Lebedev’s beard regrowth however many times a week. Lord Brownlow – the sad-sack who paid for seemingly every luxury item the Johnsons bought but couldn’t afford – would have been made a duke.
During his premiership, Johnson had already created 86 peers, meaning that a hefty percentage of the 800 or so members of the upper chamber will have now been appointed by him. Some Tory donor who was Jacob Rees-Mogg’s business partner was recently ennobled by Liz Truss, solely so he could become investment minister. Lord Johnson (no relation, in this rare case) held the investment minister post for precisely 26 days before the Truss administration died in a freak prime ministering accident, but he is now in the Lords and able to influence British law for the rest of his life.
Yet on it all rolls, in the hope that people won’t notice. Indeed, the task of noticing such things has become almost a full-time job. Every now and then I have to remind myself that at least 56 MPs are reportedly facing sexual misconduct allegations. Where are we with any of those? There are now so many of these stories that we lose track of how they end – or even what happens after they have first broken.
The other day I suddenly remembered David Warburton MP, the member for Somerset and Frome, who in April was suspended from the Conservative party following multiple sexual assault allegations and claims of cocaine use (in response, he insisted he had “enormous amounts of defence” against the claims). What happened with that story, I wonder? A quick Google search finds that only a fortnight ago David was farting out quotes calling for Liz Truss to be swiftly replaced. “It’s crucial we put in place a new leader and prime minister who truly has the strength of purpose that Britain needs,” Warburton thundered, possibly in front of an upturned roasting tin . “I am pressing for the leadership contest to be conducted expeditiously and look forward to a new prime minister who will command both local and national support as we face the very significant challenges that must be overcome – and overcome rapidly.” Certainly more rapidly than David’s case is being investigated.
The many grim spectacles of the past few years in British politics have had a cumulative effect. One of the most significant takeouts of this era will be the failure or refusal of its leading politicians to understand the deep impact of all the various democratic crises they have visited upon the people they are supposed to serve.
It is a mark of their terminal deficiency they may not even recognise these as crisis events, preferring to categorise them as a rolling series of consequence-free cock-ups that they would soon be able overwrite in the goldfish-like public memory – usually with another scandal. Everything from the pandemic cronyism to partygate to porn-in-the-chamber to Johnson’s endless lying to the perceived Truss premium on mortgages has had the dubious benefit of being followed about 10 minutes later by another scandal to draw the eye. Or so the politicians involved in them seem to have hoped.
But if you bother listening to people outside Westminster, and away from the short-termist whirr of a dopamine-charged daily news cycle, this has not turned out to be the case. There is a huge amount of anger. Conspiracism is, in many ways understandably, on the rise. Trust in all politicians has been damaged, and distrust of democracy has inevitably followed. Still, no doubt most of Johnson’s resignation honours will be waved through. What’s another straw on the camel’s back?
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist
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