I imagine that in recommending Philip Hammond and Ken Clarke for peerages, Boris Johnson sees himself in engaging in a Tory healing process. ‘I may have kicked them out of the parliamentary party,’ he is saying, ‘but let bygones be bygones – I’m big enough to honour my former enemies.’ And of course, unlike David Gauke and Dominic Grieve, neither had the temerity to stand against the Conservative party in the general election, so it is some kind of reward for not complaining too bitterly when punished for disloyalty.
But is that really the message that Boris needs to be handing out regarding the House of Lords – underlining its role as a place where Prime Minister’s can do politics through patronage?
Boris is also reported to be on the point of ennobling Ian Austin. It is not hard to see why that former Labour MP should be getting the ermine courtesy of a prime ministerial recommendation, given his declaration at an important point of the election campaign that Jeremy Corbyn was unfit for public office. Maybe that would be a straightforward tit-for-tat in retaliation against Corbyn’s decision to recommend John Bercow for a peerage. It is all getting a bit petty.
There is a way that Boris could genuinely rise above the fray – which is to use his large majority to do what all three main parties promised to do during the 2010 election campaign but which the Tories and Lib Dems singularly failed to do, in spite of governing for five years with their own substantial coalition majority. That is to complete Blair’s unfinished reform of the House of Lords.
What has Boris got to lose? He has an awful lot to gain. During the EU referendum campaign, he made huge capital out of the EU’s contempt for democracy, how its unelected commissioners were ruling above the heads of the people, without any fear of being thrown out of office. Yet on we go with one of our two houses of Parliament still an unelected oligarchy.
The Tories used to oppose an elected House of Lords because they had an inbuilt majority. Following the cull of most hereditary peers and the stuffing of the Lords with New Labour and Lib Dem life peers that is no longer that case. If Boris wants to achieve a secure a majority in the Lords he has two options: either stuff it with even more life peers, turning it into an even more unmanageable chamber; or make it fully elected – and hope that the election result will be repeated in the upper house.
The only excuse for creating masses of new peers is to produce a majority which, like the Brexit party’s MEPs, can vote for their own extinction. I’ll even volunteer for the role myself.