Working to make government more effective


Johnson’s resignation honours list makes House of Lords reform appear as far off as ever

The outgoing prime minister plans to ennoble a large number of peers

The outgoing prime minister’s plan to ennoble a large number of peers raises questions about prime ministerial powers of patronage and harms the upper house’s credibility, says Hannah White

In just three years, Boris Johnson has already made appointments to the House of Lords equivalent to 10% of its current size – appointing 86 new peers to a house which now totals more than 800. His reported plans to add an unusually large number of peers in his resignation honours list would further swell a chamber that is already, infamously, second only in size to the Chinese National People’s Congress.

The House of Lords itself has acknowledged its size is a problem. Not only are there practical considerations – physical space is limited and the support services which facilitate peers’ work have finite capacity – the Lords’ scrutiny work is also undermined by the rising number of peers. Lords authorities have already been forced to limit the tenure on scrutiny committees to just three years to allow more peers to serve, with a third rotating off each committee each year. This disrupts the continuity of work programmes, limits the accumulation of institutional knowledge and restricts relationship building – all of which are essential to effective scrutiny.

Political peers’ inactivity lays bare Johnson’s cronyism

But although the number of peers wishing to contribute can be problematic, in many ways the inactivity of many recently created political peers is a greater concern. As the current Lord Speaker, Lord McFall, observed in a letter to the two candidates vying to succeed Johnson, recent political appointees to the Lords “have not been especially active”. This harms the reputation of the Lords, reinforcing the strong element of cronyism in such appointments – an opportunity to reward financial contributions to a political party, personal loyalty or political support from newspaper editors or proprietors, for example. None of this is lost on the public.

Not only does this undermine trust in whether the Lords is actually capable of doing the job it is intended to do – scrutinising government policy and legislation, and holding ministers to account – but it also calls into question the very fact that prime ministers retain such a power of patronage. Much of politics is ultimately about patronage, but there is a serious question about whether that should extend to an unfettered right to shape the make-up of the legislature.

Johnson’s resignation honours list is a final chance to push the limits of the constitution

Johnson is not the first prime minister to exercise this right, but – as with many of his actions in government – the mooted appointments are likely to present him with a last chance to test the limits of what constitutional convention will bear, highlighting the absence of effective checks on a leader who is happy to push them to the extreme. In this instance it appears that the House of Lords Appointments Commission (HOLAC) – the body responsible for vetting potential peers as well as proposing non-political appointees – may be exercising its sole, weak form of check by taking its time over clearing the latest set of proposed new peers.

But this is unlikely to prevent Johnson getting his way. HOLAC can advise against certain candidates being given peerages – as it did in 2020 when he put forward former Conservative Party treasurer Peter Cruddas – but there is little to stop a prime minister ignoring this advice, as he did in the case of Cruddas. On his way out of Downing Street there will be even less incentive on Johnson to exercise restraint.

House of Lords reform appears as far off as ever

Acting with restraint is precisely what the House of Lords itself has called upon prime ministers to do. In 2017, the Burns Committee report, commissioned by the then Lord Speaker Lord Fowler, proposed a series of measures to reduce the size of the Lords to a maximum of 600. These included a 15-year term limit for new members, a ‘two-out-one-in’ system and restrictions on future appointments.

Five years later the report appears dead in the water. While the expectation of an imminent slew of appointments has prompted hard thinking in the Lords about how to impose a statutory check on political appointments, this is an innovation no prime minister will be attracted to implementing. The result is that the House of Lords is stuck between the status quo rock of declining credibility and the hard place of governments lacking the incentive to expend political capital on serious reform. In the meantime, the biggest losers are UK’s reputation for effective parliamentary government – and the public that government serves.

Political party
Johnson government
House of Lords
Public figures
Boris Johnson
Institute for Government

Related content

11 JUL 2022 Online event
11 July 2022

Bronwen Maddox valedictory lecture

As she prepares to step down as Director of the Institute for Government, Bronwen Maddox gave a valedictory lecture.