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Thursday 6 August 2020

Honours uneven

Is there any institution, convention, tradition – up to and including the monarchy – that Boris Johnson will not disrupt, traduce, usurp?

We know the answer to that from the unlawful prorogation of Parliament and the lying to the Queen to achieve that end - albeit temporarily. Yet still, he has this capacity to amaze with his audacity. The latest example being the “Prime Minister’s Honours” published last weekend.

Forget for a moment the controversy over the recipients of his largesse, the ennobling of a marathon-walking cricketer merely for his utterances in support of Brexit. Cronyism and the repayment of personal and political debts have always been part of this game; think Harold Wilson and Marcia Falkender’s Lavender List; think the Cameron resignation honours. 'Twas ever thus.

Inequality and entitlement have also always been part of the game. For those in the right occupations, honours are part of the career progression, starting with the OBE and culminating in a K for the time-serving civil servant who makes permanent secretary or a damehood for the actress who has worn enough Sunday night bustles and lorgnettes.

But honours are supposed to be more than an expected perk of the job or a headline grabber; they are there to recognise ordinary people in all walks of life, from the lollipop lady and sub-postmaster to the small-time entrepreneurs who turn a kitchen table hobby into a viable business. The people who make our country tick.

These are the people who have been done down by Johnson’s latest caprice. People who should already have been recognised, most likely by being appointed an MBE – the lowest rung on the honours ladder – but who have had to wait while his Press chums and party donors troop into the Lords.

Every June, we officially celebrate the anniversary of the coronation with the Trooping the Colour, a spectacular flypast and the Queen’s Birthday Honours. This year, thanks to covid, the Colour was trooped quietly in Windsor and the flypast was limited. The honours were absent.

The Prime Minister had announced in May that the list would not be published until the autumn to ensure, he said, that it reflected the covid-19 effort and came “at a time when we can properly celebrate the achievements of all those included”.

The decision was reported briefly, without question or challenge. Was it reasonable? Almost certainly, if it was going to deflect Whitehall staffers from more pressing matters. But that was not the case. Mr Johnson acknowledged in his statement that the list had been agreed before the pandemic struck.

Wouldn’t it have been strange to have a list that didn’t recognise covid “heroes”? Well, not really. People would understand that the list had been prepared before they had done their bit and that their time for recognition would come later – as happens in every Olympic year when our summer medallists are honoured in midwinter.

Indeed, if the Prime Minister wished, he could produce a special coronavirus honours list at any time he chose – as happened after the Falklands conflict and the Gulf wars.

Would it not seem tone deaf to be knighting ageing rock stars at a time when hundreds of people were still dying every day? Possibly. But the death rate was falling, garden centres and other businesses were to reopen the weekend after he made the announcement; the anti-lockdown lobby was becoming ever more vociferous in its clamour for a return to normality. In the cautiously optimistic mood he was seeking to promote, postponing the honours was counter-narrative.

 If he had to say anything at all about them, this was an ideal opportunity – the very day after the Queen dubbed Captain Tom in a special one-off ceremony – for Johnson to send a “keep calm and carry on” message while explaining that the covid effort would be properly recognised once the virus had been well and truly beaten.

There would have been positives in it. After all, the honours posed no risk of spreading the virus, but they might have spread some good cheer, even if investitures had to be deferred.

Instead he broke the link between the Queen’s official birthday and the honouring of her subjects, betraying – knowingly or otherwise – a level of contempt for them both. He may have thought he was doing the right thing, but if “circumstances” lead you to treat a fixed event in the national calendar as a movable feast when you don’t absolutely have to, it will be easier to move it again when it suits your purposes in the future. That is how traditions are destroyed, institutions brought down.

As with his request to use the Buckingham Palace tennis court and gardens in preference to more conventional facilities, Johnson doesn’t seem to understand that there are some “royal” areas on which it is unwise for a Prime Minister to tread. It smacks of entitlement and looks disrespectful.

Meanwhile, the public health emergency did not stop him thanking his Brexit friends and sending a further 36 people into an overcrowded House of Lords. Will they be “working” peers? Will Beefy actually turn up and do a bit of legislating? Do we want him to? Hammond probably will, but has Ken had enough?

These were officially the dissolution honours – albeit seven months late – but only the Telegraph described them as such. The Times, beneficiary of a leak two weeks in advance of publication, said that Johnson was “marking his anniversary as leader”; the BBC called it “the Prime Minister’s honours”. And everyone just took it as normal. There were raised eyebrows over some of the people he was elevating, but no questions or explanations of Johnson’s power to dole out baubles – or not, as with the Birthday Honours – whenever he fancies.

We’d seen that before, straight after the election, when he sent Zac Goldsmith, twice rejected by the electorate, to the Lords, along with Nicky Morgan, who hadn’t risked standing for the Commons. That prompted accusations that he was using the Lords as “a job centre for his friends”.

And now family, too. The shameless nepotism and cronyism of the latest list, including – just a week after the Russia report – the son of a Russian spy, again demonstrates how Johnson and his cohort are confident that they can do whatever they like, to hell with any backlash. As one tweeter remarked: “They’re gaslighting the whole nation now.”

There are, we are told, “more to come” in the autumn, presumably under cover of the covid heroes. Will Baron Farage sneak under the radar while the PM points to Sir Radiologist?

And how will the coronavirus effort be reflected? Will the class system again hold sway with knighthoods and CBEs for the doctors and specialists, while 14-hour-shift nurses are palmed off with the MBE? Who can possibly say which paramedic’s efforts were greater than another’s? Will porters, cleaners, ambulancemen, binmen, schoolteachers, carers be recognised? We can only hope.

I’d like to see damehoods and knighthoods for the care home owners who resisted pressure to take untested hospital patients and instigated their own procedures to keep residents safe long before Hancock came up with his imaginary “protective ring”. But that’s not going to happen. You don’t get rewarded for defying this Government.

No doubt Chris Whitty will get his knighthood, Vallance might be sent to the Lords. We can be pretty sure that, as ever, the highest honours will go to the closest “friends”.

But at least Mrs Lollipop Lady will, at last, be able to celebrate her MBE “properly”.




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