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The upper house stoops lower

The upper house stoops lower

Offering a peerage to Peter Cruddas doesn’t just make a mockery of the House of Lords – it’s indicative of Boris Johnson’s entire attitude towards the country he governs


Let me start with a question. What is the collective noun for members of the House of Lords? If it’s a murder of crows and a parliament of owls, it’s surely, what, a payback of peers? An embarrassment of ermine? I ask this because, notwithstanding everything else that’s on his plate, Boris Johnson seems determined to make a laughing stock of Britain’s upper house.

I’m James Harding, editor and co-founder of Tortoise, and, given that 2020 doesn’t seem quite done with us, I want to use this first Editor’s Voicemail of the year – and you’ll have noticed we’ve moved it to Wednesdays – to deal with some unfinished business from last year. Because if you remember back to that exhausted, anxious week just before Christmas, Mr Johnson somehow managed to find time to make public his decision to override the advice of the Lords Appointment Commission – something no prime minister had done before – in order to offer a peerage to Peter Cruddas.

Who? Well, you’d be forgiven not for knowing. He just about pricked the public consciousness in 2012, when he resigned as one of the treasurers of the Conservative party after the Sunday Times reported that he was prepared to offer access to David Cameron, then prime minister, for a substantial donation to the party. There then followed a battle in the courts; he won damages; the Sunday Times appealed and clawed some back. And the detail matters here: the Court of Appeal upheld his libel claim on foreign donations, but it said his actions were “unacceptable, inappropriate and wrong”. And on that basis, the Lords Appointment Commission said it opposed a peerage for Mr Cruddas.

Nonetheless, in a letter to the Commission, Mr Johnson said he thought a decision should be made based on more than just the events of 2012. So, true – and yet, that’s what makes the PM’s decision so suspect. Yes, Mr Cruddas has been a financial success story. His father worked in Smithfield market; and then he left school at 15 and went on and made a fortune. But here is Mr Cruddas’ CV in a sentence: he built CMC Markets, a financial spread-betting business; after he made his millions, he moved for a time to Monaco; and he has given more than £3m to the Conservative Party – in fact, more than £600,000 since Boris Johnson became prime minister, and he separately contributed financially to Mr Johnson’s leadership campaign.

To paraphrase the great Mrs Merton: Prime Minister, what first prompted you to buck the rules on standards in public life in favour of the billionaire Peter Cruddas who gave you, and your party, money? In fact, come to think of it, how are financial spread betting, life lessons in the tax-lite principality of Monaco and a record of giving to the Tories the qualities that you think are needed in a Member of the House of Lords? After all, it’s not a title, it’s a job: the scrutiny of legislation and the oversight of the Government. And, you know what, if you wanted to make a point about social mobility in the Upper House, is there really no-one else you could find other than a financier of your party and personal advancement?

As is so often the case when people break the rules, it’s because there’s a narrative of grievance here. It’s an up yours to the “deep state”; it’s the put-upon executive saying “screw you” to the establishment; the boss telling the blob where to get off. And in this, Mr Johnson’s peerage for Mr Cruddas strikes me as being in the same vein as Donald Trump’s run of pardons in recent weeks. Because there is a common thread to Mr Trump’s pardons for the Blackwater contractors who had been convicted on war crimes; for Rod Blagojevich, the former Illinois Governor convicted of trying to sell a Senate seat; or for Charles Kuchner, the father of his son-in-law who had been convicted of tax evasion and witness tampering; indeed, for the clemency for Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, and for Roger Stone, a long-time political friend and associate. And that common thread is this: a shared sense of victimhood. It’s the sense of being victimised by the establishment, whether it’s judges on the bench, the officials in the federal government or, of course, people in the media.

Marina Hyde at the Guardian kicked off the year with a brilliant column on Boris Johnson’s tendency to tell you, as he announces another grim piece of news, how no-one feels more awful about this than he does: “I can no longer remember any Boris Johnson podium address that wasn’t riven with subconscious invitations to consider the real victim in all this: him,” she wrote. Well, this week, you rather felt that Mr Johnson had read what Marina Hyde had to say. On Monday night, for what struck me as the first time, his delivery of a national TV address was undramatic – it was free of grandiloquent verbal flourishes; it was without that knowing look; without, in fact, reference to himself. Instead, hands folded on the table, he stuck to the unvarnished, informative script on the autocue. It was, well, I suppose, normal.

But the pattern of ripping up political norms goes beyond one TV moment. The politics of populism have for some time been rooted in feeling unfairly treated and unseen – willing and justified, in fact, to kick against the powers that be. And in the case of Mr Johnson and Mr Trump, they’ve found that that holds true even if you are the powers that be. Because it’s all done in a spirit of positivity, in the belief that the power of positive thinking can overcome the no-can-do obstructionists. 

And the “you would say that wouldn’t you” suspicion of expert advice explains a pattern of behaviour in office. It goes beyond rhetoric; instead it accounts, in part, for the government’s on-again, off-again teenage relationship with scientific experts. It’s why Mr Johnson verbally venerates his scientists but, on three critical occasions in March, in September and again in December, he has ignored their advice when they’ve argued for a lockdown, hoped instead for the best and things have turned out considerably worse. It’s the context, too, for his backing of Priti Patel, the home secretary, despite the official findings of her aggressive treatment of civil servants, just as much as it is in the promoting of Mr Cruddas to the House of Lords against the advice of the Appointments Commission.

For the last four years, no one could have as great a victim complex, no one be as willing to break quite so many rules to stand up for his idea of the common man, no one could be more capable of being a nation unto himself, to wrap himself in the flag than Donald Trump. Johnson’s nationalism, his style of populism and even the notoriety of his hairdo have made him, at best, a Mini-Me to the 45th president. But with Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January approaching, the political stage is about to change. Trump may well remain in politics, but not in power. And his rebel-in-chief routine is coming to an end.

With Mr Trump gone, Mr Johnson might find himself more of an outlier, more exposed. And perhaps that’s the biggest risk for him in the self-indulgence of Peter Cruddas’ peerage. It’s not that Mr Johnson makes the Lords look like a national joke, but that he looks like an old one.