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Reform is needed to save the House of Lords from an abuse of patronage

With ‘gamblegate’ engulfing the Conservatives, City A.M. does not recommend betting on politics. But there’s one outcome of this election that’s a dead cert: a victorious Keir Starmer will swiftly appoint dozens of new peers to nod through his legislation and Rishi Sunak will draw up a resignation honour list cloaking various acolytes in ermine as a reward for failure.

After a period that has done so much damage to our political culture, the inevitability of these appointments feels like an insult to voters. And indeed the Institute for Government, the UCL Constitution Unit and the UK Governance Project yesterday issued a joint call for urgent reform of the honours system. In a letter to The Times signed by Rain Newton-Smith, director-general of the CBI, along with former Supreme Court justices and senior civil servants, they warned that “trust in politics, and in the people and institutions of public life, is at an all-time low. This is a serious problem for the health of our democracy and is indicative of the need for substantial improvement in the governance of the UK.”

Britain’s ancient institutions are one of our greatest strengths: a source of stability and an accretion of knowledge that is handed from generation to generation. But the abuse of patronage has stretched the notion that the House of Lords is a chamber of ‘experts’ beyond credulity. A person’s age should certainly not rule them out of a seat in the House of Lords, but the undistinguished CVs of the likes of Carmen Smith – an aide to Plaid Cymru in the Welsh parliament ennobled at 28 – perhaps should. Other scandals, like Nadine Dorries claiming she was “denied” the peerage her loyalty to Boris Johnson entitled her to, or party donors apparently buying themselves berths on the red benches, have done nothing for the dignity of the upper house. And that’s before you start on the anachronistic absurdity of hereditary peers and Lords Spiritual.

Newton-Smith and co are surely right that a few quick changes could strengthen the independence and accountability of the honours system; voters and investors alike deserve to know that such positions are gained on merit alone. But their most radical suggestion, ending Prime Ministerial patronage, may prove the least achievable. The promise of a title and a job for life is a powerful incentive to support a leader. Will a political operator like Starmer give that up willingly? I wouldn’t bet on it.