Yesterday’s Sunday Times carried a story full of outrage at Boris Johnson’s rejection of advice from the security services. And another about different advice he’s received from them which turned out to be completely mistaken.
The first was about Evgeny Lebedev’s peerage. (The spooks said initally that he shouldn’t have one). The second was about the supply of defensive weapons to Ukraine. (They said that it shouldn’t happen.) There’s a moral in the juxtaposition.
Namely, that Prime Ministers should always listen to advice from the security services, but not necessarily heed it – and certainly question it if in doubt.
We are all in their debt for the safety they provide, often in the most testing of circumstances. It’s in the nature of what they do that their successes are seldom reported and that their failures often are, which can give a skewed impression of their effectiveness.
All the same, failures there are – as in the case of the murderers of Lee Rigby, for example. “I don’t want anyone to be in any doubt that there are lessons to be learned,” David Cameron told the Commons.
If Tony Blair had been more disposed to question assessments from the security services, Britain might never have entered the Iraq War. And, to turn to the Sunday Times story yesterday, if Ben Wallace and Johnson hadn’t held out against their advice, Ukraine would be less capable of defending itself.
Which takes us to Lebedev. We don’t know details either of their original view or of why they changed it. But we do know that he bought the Evening Standard in 2009 and the Independent newspapers a year later.
So in the light of their original advice to Johnson it’s puzzling that they don’t appear to have taken the same view a decade ago. If Lebedev is a fit and proper newspaper proprietor, it’s hard to see why he shouldn’t be a fit and proper peer.
Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong and much right in Prime Ministers – and Leaders of the Opposition, come to think of it – having a hand in the honours system.
That’s because they’re accountable to voters for their decisions on appointments while those who make others are not. Besides, it’s not as though the main alternative punted to appointed peers – replacing them with a partly or wholly elected second chamber – is unproblematic.
Voters would be unlikely to greet a second tranche of elected politicians, doubtless complete with salaries as well as expenses, with joy (to put it mildly). And that’s before one gets entangled in the thickets of what these new politicians would be elected to do.
Two chambers with competing mandates would be a recipe for confusion, gridlock and conflict. Unless there were to be a written constitution to clarify the functions of the two houses.
There’s a case for one but no mandate for it, and it’s very doubtful that an electorate currently preocuppied with the economy, the NHS and defence would give one enthusiastically, if at all. All the same, it doesn’t follow that because an elected second chamber is a bad idea that the present set-up is a good one.
For while appointment by those we elect may be preferable to appointment by those we don’t, it’s scarcely ideal in either case.
Lebedev’s peerage helps to prove the point. The security services may have been as wrong about his standing as they were about Ukrainian arms. But there’s something a bit rum about having a British peer “of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond on Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation”.
And while there is no obstacle to the Prime Minister rewarding those who have supported him, is a largely appointed Upper House really the best we can have in all possible worlds?
There is an itch to scrap this vast assembly, reputedly the second-largest legislative chamber in the world behind the Chinese National People’s Congress, and go unicameral. But what safeguard would there be to delay legislation if a Corbyn of the future took 51 per cent of the Commons seats on much less of the popular vote?
The Lords itself has looked at retiring those who don’t turn up. Other ideas include slapping down an age limit. Plenty of peers appreciate that they’re no more popular than MPs.
When push comes to shove, the only alternative to appointment, direct election, abolition or a federal solution, short of drawing names out of a hat, is indirect election. Sebastian Payne of the Financial Times has written in support of replacing the Lords with a chamber of local Mayors, senior councillors and members of the devolved institutions.
This looks like the least disruptive alternative to the present chamber and therefore, almost by definition, the least bad. Though it remains to be seen whether the voters view any alternative as better than the status quo.