Boris Johnson’s decision to send Nicky Morgan to the House of Lords so she can remain Culture Secretary is shameless, writes Martyn McLaughlin.
If the tubthumping rhetoric directed by Boris Johnson at the “unelected bureaucrats” of the European Union seemed brazenly absurd and jingoistic even before he entered Downing Street, one of the first major decisions he has made since becoming Prime Minister merely confirms it, while sprinkling a little hypocrisy on top for good measure.
His elevation of Nicky Morgan to the House of Lords, a move which allows her to remain in her role as Culture Secretary, is an affront to the UK constitution, a system knitted together from statute, case law, and social consensus.
In his pursuit of the highest office in the land, Mr Johnson openly demonstrated contempt for such conventions. It should come as no surprise that a continuing disdain for democratic norms should emerge as a cornerstone of his fledgling government.
The ennoblement of Ms Morgan raises a flurry questions, not least the reason for her life peerage. Services to sophistry has a nice alliterative ring to it for the woman who once said she would refuse to serve in a Cabinet led by Mr Johnson.
When she did so, back in September 2018, she criticised Mr Johnson’s deliberately reckless criticism of Theresa May’s faltering Chequers Brexit plan, which he compared to wrapping a suicide vest around the British constitution, before handing the detonator, to Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator.
An indignant Ms Morgan warned that all politicians had a duty to reflect on the language they used, adding: “Boris has to make a decision – he’s either a journalist or a politician.”
More time in the House, not home
As Ms Morgan has since discovered to her benefit, it is quite easy to flit between elected and unelected roles. A little over six weeks have passed since she announced she would not seek reelection as the MP for Loughborough, a position she held for close to a decade.
While Ms Morgan insisted that she loved the bread and butter of constituency work, the work of an MP was having a “clear impact” on her family life.
“I can’t commit to another five-year term and now is the time for me to stand aside and be at home far more,” she announced.
Perhaps Ms Morgan meant she would be spending more time in the House rather than her home, although given the lacklustre attendance rates in the Lords, it is likely she can have the best of both worlds.
It has been suggested that her new post will last only until a proposed reshuffle of Mr Johnson’s Cabinet takes place in February, but two months is a long time in politics, especially so in the age of Brexit.
The furore over her appointment will ebb away, replaced by some new controversy. Do not be surprised if Mr Johnson holds on to her. Sycophants, after all, are useful allies.
But the criticism can, and should, persist, just as it did when Lord Mandelson and Lord Adonis were given plum Cabinet jobs under Labour. It is possible, if not preferable, for governments to rely on a few junior ministers drawn from the ranks of the other place. For the most part, however, they have been minor players.
What makes Mr Johnson’s decision to give Ms Morgan a peerage particularly egregious is not simply the fact it makes a mockery of the idea that meritocratic ideals are part of Conservative politics. No, it is the way it has been explicitly done to bring her into Government while ensuring she is spared the scrutiny and accountability of an MP.
‘Traitors in ermine’
Whether it is setting out policies to tackle the scourge of disinformation, how the BBC is funded, or addressing the issue of the governance of football clubs, Ms Morgan will have big decisions to make. That she is able to make them without being answerable to anyone other than Mr Johnson is a sham.
A peer can go about their business without worrying about re-election or re-selection. That is precisely why the more extreme elements of the pro-Johnson, pro-Leave press railed against those “traitors in ermine” who inflicted one painful defeat after another on Ms May’s government as it attempted to push through Brexit legislation.
It will be interesting to see if they reserve the same scorn for Ms Morgan and, if predictions are borne out, Zac Goldsmith. Both would be beacons of 21st century Britain’s unelected political establishment. But as Mr Johnson has shown, not all establishments abide by the same set of rules.
Perhaps there is a danger of rushing to condemn Ms Morgan before she has slipped on her new robes. She might well prove to be a breath of fresh in the Lords. Certainly, if her record as a humble MP is anything to go by, she should have an interesting tenure.
She was among those in the Commons to vote in favour of reforming the Lords by introducing 15-year terms for most members and an elected element. It may be that she will seek to convince her colleagues in the Cabinet of the merits of such a scheme.
Such sweeping changes would bring a semblance of democratic accountability to the second chamber, and allow Boris Johnson to reshape our institutions of national self-government.
Then again, it’s probably best not hold your breath. As he goes about reasserting parliamentary sovereignty, the supreme leader of the People’s Government is wasting no time in showing his true colours.