New nominations to U.K. House of Lords raise old concerns of cronyism
By Mark Landler
One is a Russian-born British newspaper baron whose father was once a KGB officer. Another is a retired cricket player who goes by the nickname Beefy, and yet another is the prime minister’s younger brother.
With a collection of names like that, it was perhaps little wonder that Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to release his first list of appointments to the House of Lords late on a Friday afternoon last week, with Parliament in recess and the public lulled into a tropical haze on the hottest day of the year so far.
But Downing Street’s apparent effort to bury the news seemed, in the end, unnecessary. The handing out of peerages, as lifetime appointments to the House of Lords are called, is one of Britain’s most predictable displays of patronage and cronyism — so reliably unsavory, regardless of the prime minister or party in power, that even Johnson’s critics found it hard to get too wound up about it.
“Shameless,” wrote Simon Jenkins, a columnist for The Guardian, on Monday.
Reached later by phone, Jenkins said he was actually more concerned about a new government proposal to overhaul Britain’s planning laws, which date back to 1947. He said it would strip local councils of control over real estate development in the name of Johnson’s drive to “build, build, build.”
The degradation of the House of Lords, by comparison, has been going on for 400 years. “To be honest, since James I,” Jenkins said, referring to the first Stuart king of England, whose sale of peerages, during his reign from 1603-25, was so brazen that it turned the landed gentry against the crown.
Still, Jenkins and other critics said Johnson’s appointments broke new ground in ways that could further tarnish the credibility of the House of Lords. At its best, the British Parliament’s ancient upper chamber serves as a check on the more unruly House of Commons, debating and amending legislation, if with less power than the lower chamber. In recent decades, though, it has become known mainly as a sinecure for wealthy donors and other well-connected types.
Defying a commitment to fight bloat, the prime minister created 36 new peers, the second highest number in more than two decades, swelling the chamber to nearly 800 members. Among legislative bodies worldwide, only the Chinese National People’s Congress is larger, with nearly 3,000 seats. The House of Commons, which does most of the legislative heavy lifting, is capped at 650 elected members.
“This just hangs around the neck of the House of Lords, and to the extent that its reputation is damaged, it is weakened,” said Meg Russell, a professor of politics at University College London and an expert on the institution. “It becomes more expensive, less efficient and effective, and more open to ridicule.”
Johnson also broke with custom by nominating peers from the opposition Labour Party, usually the prerogative of the party’s leader. He chose people who supported his Brexit campaign, a thumb in the eye to Labour, which was split by Brexit in the last election.
That will buttress the pro-Brexit contingent in the House of Lords but it also creates a politically nonaligned faction — members who are not welcome in their own party but do not belong to Johnson’s Conservative Party either — which could make it more unpredictable in its voting.
Queen Elizabeth II confers peerages and the prime minister’s nominations are vetted by a House of Lords Appointments Commission. In rare instances, the commission can refuse to endorse them on grounds of propriety. This time, a person with knowledge of the process said, the government brushed aside the commission on certain cases, adding to the lack of transparency.
“The House of Lords is completely at the mercy of the prime minister,” Russell said. “He can discredit the institution by putting in an inappropriate number of people and inappropriate types of people.”
Some experts said Johnson’s nominations were in keeping with a government that holds the House of Lords in contempt. He has suggested moving the chamber to York, in the north of England, to make it more attuned to the interests of ordinary voters. The lords, many of whom live in or near London, are unsurprisingly reluctant.
Even though Johnson appointed dozens of new peers, a spokesman for 10 Downing St. said the prime minister remained committed to reducing the size of the House of Lords. He did not comment on individual nominees, beyond saying they were “nominated in recognition of their contribution to society.”
But there is no shortage of red flags on Johnson’s list, starting with Evgeny Lebedev, who owns The London Evening Standard and is a close friend of Johnson’s. Lebedev’s father and bankroller, Alexander, is an oligarch who once worked for the KGB and has financed Novaya Gazeta, a liberal-leaning paper disliked by the Kremlin.
The younger Lebedev is known for throwing bacchanals at his converted castle in Italy. Johnson was photographed in 2018 at an airport, returning from one of them. Fellow passengers told The Guardian that Johnson, then serving as foreign secretary, looked as if “he had slept in his clothes.”
There is no suggestion that Lebedev is acting as an agent of the Russian government. But the timing of his peerage was awkward, coming a week after a parliamentary committee released a long-awaited report documenting how Russian money had corrupted British politics. The report said several other members of the House of Lords, whom it did not name, had business interests linked to Russia or worked for companies with Russian ties.
Two vocal Brexiteers on Johnson’s list also attracted notice: Ian Botham, a colorful and charismatic retired cricket player widely known as Beefy, and Claire Fox, a writer and politician who began as a Communist and migrated to the right over the years, joining the Brexit Party and serving in the European Parliament.
And then there was the conspicuous snub of John Bercow, the former speaker of the House of Commons, whose stentorian calls for order during the emotional debates over Brexit turned him briefly into a celebrity.
The Labour Party’s former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, nominated Bercow in keeping with a long tradition of elevating retired speakers. But Johnson left him off the list, with aides suggesting his candidacy had been sunk by allegations that he bullied subordinates. Others said it was revenge for Bercow’s readiness to let backbenchers harangue the government on its Brexit policy.
To some critics, penalizing Bercow for bad behavior seemed almost comically arbitrary, given the other names on Johnson’s list.
“It’s as if he invited his mates for a drunken weekend in Prague and offered them all seats in the House of Lords afterward,” Jenkins said.