Although eclipsed by the decision to delay the latest round of lockdown easing, last Friday’s Daily Telegraph carried a troubling story about the Prime Minister and the House of Lords.
No, not his proposals to move them to York – although these remain the height of folly – but the claim that he is considering an overhaul of how new peers are appointed after getting several of his nominations knocked back at the last minute.
From the start, this Government has expressed a keen interest in constitutional issues, although following the shelving of their mooted Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission it isn’t clear what shape that interest will take. But this story highlights the dangers of an uncoordinated, unsystematic approach. This is how the Telegraph describes it:
“Boris Johnson is understood to be furious after he was blocked from giving peerages to some of the Conservative Party’s financial backers, and is threatening to reform the House of Lords in retaliation.
“The Prime Minister is said to be “very frustrated, angry and upset” after a Lords watchdog refused to sign off peerages for some of his business supporters this summer.”
Surely Downing Street can see the danger here. There may well be grounds for reforming the way we appoint peers, or other aspects of the Upper House. There may also be a case for bolstering the ranks of the Conservative benches, although this is less pressing with a large Commons majority and in any event only hastens the day when someone will have to confront the unsustainable pattern of parties having to bid up the number of peers after every change of government.
But such changes will never attain widespread legitimacy if it looks as if they have been imposed purely to aid Boris Johnson in appointing Tory donors to the red benches (although these are still better than some of his successful choices).
If the Government really is going to mount a serious push on the constitutional front – and it is past time that it did – then ministers must take pains to ensure that their proposals cannot be fairly painted as straightforward partisan game-playing. When listing the reasons for altering the arrangements in Parliament, the courts, or elsewhere, ‘the Prime Minister is upset’ should not even feature.