In the summer of 2020, Boris Johnson’s understanding of probity and public ethics was highlighted by his government’s nomination of 36 new members of the House of Lords. It remains one of the defining acts of his premiership: there were peerages for such Brexit supporters as the former cricketer Ian Botham, the Johnson friend and former Telegraph editor Charles Moore and the erstwhile Revolutionary Communist Claire Fox, as well as the prime minister’s brother Jo, and the Evening Standard proprietor and social gadabout Evgeny Lebedev.
The chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society said that “by appointing a host of ex-MPs, party loyalists and his own brother, the PM is inviting total derision”. But as deadpan summaries of the way that this great frenzy of patronage shone light on the stupidities of the British system of government go, the best takes on what had happened came from media outlets overseas. “The 36 new investitures include many loyalists,” reported one Italian news agency, “and expand the already abnormal number of members of the upper house, who sometimes do not even go there.”
Eighteen months later, one name from that list has renewed significance. Johnson’s first tranche of new peers included Michael Spencer, also known as Baron Spencer of Alresford (it’s in Hampshire), who finally made it to the Lords after David Cameron’s past efforts to make him a peer had been repeatedly frustrated. Spencer made his fortune through electronic trading on the financial markets, spent three years as the treasurer of the Conservative party, and has donated an estimated £6m to Tory funds. Thanks to work by the Sunday Times and Open Democracy, we now know that he is at the centre of a very vivid political story: the fact that 15 of the last 16 Tory treasurers have been appointed to the Lords, all of whom have donated at least £3m to their party.
Over the last week or so, this revelation has been rather overshadowed by the antics of the former attorney general Geoffrey Cox, and daily stories about MPs’ second jobs. But the Lords is as central as the Commons to the latest outbreak of “sleaze” headlines, something also highlighted by a prime ministerial spokesperson’s initial refusal to rule out smoothing the exit from the Commons of the disgraced MP Owen Paterson by making him a peer. The Lords element of the story, moreover, has an even clearer underlying plotline: the survival of a part of the British state that has long been absurd and corrupt – and the sense that, as our established institutions are constantly disrupted and disgraced, the public might at last be persuaded to support the idea of doing something about it.
Viewed from any reasonable perspective, the Lords resembles one of those Hogarthian pictures conjured up by the online satirist Cold War Steve. There are 92 “hereditaries” still sitting in the chamber, and all of them are men. Since Johnson became prime minister, about 100 new life peers have been appointed, taking the total membership of the upper house to about 800 – which makes it bigger than the European parliament. If the prime minister really wants to give someone a peerage, his or her patronage powers seem to be basically unfettered: in late 2020, the House of Lords appointments commission objected to the nomination of the Tory donor and former party treasurer Peter Cruddas, who had offered access to Cameron and other ministers in exchange for party donations; but Johnson ignored the usual protocol and did it anyway (three days after he took his seat, Cruddas gave the Conservative party another £500,000, taking his total donations to well over £3m).
Involvement in reviewing, amending and delaying legislation thereby extends to tweed-wearing squires, former advisers, MPs and ministers, and a mind-boggling array of bit-part players who take the Lords into the realms of the surreal. Botham and Lebedev are obvious examples, but there are plenty of others. Six years ago, for example, the peers who voted in favour of George Osborne’s cuts to tax credits included such experts on the welfare state as Andrew Lloyd Webber, the JCB diggers tycoon Anthony Bamford, the former athlete Sebastian Coe and the lingerie businesswoman Michelle Mone.
After whole centuries of calls for its abolition, plans for change that have gone nowhere, and very occasional spurts of reform, why is such a ridiculous anachronism still here? Prime ministers of both main parties have used the Lords as a convenient human dumping-ground and a means of repaying favours, and even a relatively recent splurge of controversy did not end such habits. In 2008, I interviewed Tony Blair’s fundraiser Michael Levy onstage at the Hay festival, around a year after the so-called cash for honours scandal had ended with the Crown Prosecution Service deciding not to bring any charges. When a member of the audience asked whether rich people could improve their chances of getting a peerage by making political donations, he did not demur: “Look at the facts,” he said. “They will tell you what’s going on. Of course it’s true. That’s self-evident.”
MPs’ reluctance to radically change the upper house is often traced to a wish to keep the Lords illegitimate and compromised, so that the primacy of the Commons is never questioned. Politicians who could lead calls for the Lords’ abolition cite the lack of public interest in supposed “constitutional issues”. But does that really add up? Brexit and Scottish independence are constitutional issues, and they do not exactly leave people cold. The passions those causes have aroused, moreover, have been partly about people’s distance from power and their mistrust of cliques and coteries at the top – both things the Lords embodies. Thanks partly to what the internet has done to politics, ours is an age of irreverence and mistrust, and the upper house will surely face similar scandals in the future. And therein lies an opportunity.
Ideas for an alternative have been rattling around for so long that they have become cliches. We could create the kind of “senate of the nations and regions” the Labour party put it in its manifesto in 2015, with members either appointed by the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the new mayoral regions of England and the city and local government, or elected along comparable lines. As the musician and activist Billy Bragg suggested in 2001, seats could be apportioned on the basis of a secondary mandate, whereby votes in elections to the Commons would have two functions: electing an MP to the Commons using the current first-past-the-post system, and being used to proportionally divide seats between parties in the upper house using regional party lists. Or we could just take the simplest option and have a single legislative chamber. The main point, for the time being, is to start talking about abolition, and what it might entail.
In Westminster, even as this latest disgrace oozes on, the signs are not exactly positive. For obvious reasons, the Conservatives seem perfectly happy with things as they are. During his campaign for the labour leadership, Keir Starmer committed himself to abolishing the Lords and replacing it with “an elected chamber of regions and nations”. But last weekend, he merely said that the Lords “needs change”. The state of this swollen, rotten assembly demands a lot more than that. And if not now, with everything in play, then when?
John Harris is a Guardian columnist