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New Nominations to U.K. House of Lords Raise Old Concerns of Cronyism

2020-08-05 04:36:05
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LONDON — One is a Russian-born British newspaper baron whose father was once a K.G.B. officer. Another is a retired cricket player who goes by the nickname Beefy, and yet another is the prime minister’s younger brother.

With a collection of names like that, it was perhaps little wonder that Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to release his first list of appointments to the House of Lords late on a Friday afternoon last week, with Parliament in recess and the public lulled into a tropical haze on the hottest day of the year so far.

But Downing Street’s apparent effort to bury the news seemed, in the end, unnecessary. The handing out of peerages, as lifetime appointments to the House of Lords are called, is one of Britain’s most predictable displays of patronage and cronyism — so reliably unsavory, regardless of the prime minister or party in power, that even Mr. Johnson’s critics found it hard to get too wound up about it.

“Shameless,” wrote Simon Jenkins, a columnist for The Guardian, on Monday.

Reached later by phone, Mr. Jenkins said he was actually more concerned about a new government proposal to overhaul Britain’s planning laws, which date back to 1947. He said it would strip local councils of control over real estate development in the name of Mr. Johnson’s drive to “build, build, build.”

The degradation of the House of Lords, by comparison, has been going on for 400 years. “To be honest, since James I,” Mr. Jenkins said, referring to the first Stuart king of England, whose sale of peerages, during his reign from 1603 to 1625, was so brazen that it turned the landed gentry against the crown.

Still, Mr. Jenkins and other critics said Mr. Johnson’s appointments broke new ground in ways that could further tarnish the credibility of the House of Lords. At its best, the British Parliament’s ancient upper chamber serves as a check on the more unruly House of Commons, debating and amending legislation, if with less power than the lower chamber. In recent decades, though, it has become known mainly as a sinecure for wealthy donors and other well-connected types.

Defying a commitment to fight bloat, the prime minister created 36 new peers, the second highest number in more than two decades, swelling the chamber to nearly 800 members. Among legislative bodies worldwide, only the Chinese National People’s Congress is larger, with nearly 3,000 seats. The House of Commons, which does most of the legislative heavy lifting, is capped at 650 elected members.

“This just hangs around the neck of the House of Lords, and to the extent that its reputation is damaged, it is weakened,” said Meg Russell, a professor of politics at University College London and an expert on the institution. “It becomes more expensive, less efficient and effective, and more open to ridicule.”

Mr. Johnson also broke with custom by nominating peers from the opposition Labour Party, usually the prerogative of the party’s leader. He chose people who supported his Brexit campaign, a thumb in the eye to Labour, which was split by Brexit in the last election.

That will buttress the pro-Brexit contingent in the House of Lords but it also creates a politically nonaligned faction — members who are not welcome in their own party but do not belong to Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party either — which could make it more unpredictable in its voting.

The younger Mr. Lebedev is known for throwing bacchanals at his converted castle in Italy. Mr. Johnson was photographed in 2018 at an airport, returning from one of them. Fellow passengers told The Guardian that Mr. Johnson, then serving as foreign secretary, looked as though “he had slept in his clothes.”

There is no suggestion that Mr. Lebedev is acting as an agent of the Russian government. But the timing of his peerage was awkward, coming a week after a parliamentary committee released a long-awaited report documenting how Russian money had corrupted British politics. The report said several other members of the House of Lords, whom it did not name, had business interests linked to Russia or worked for companies with Russian ties.

Two vocal Brexiteers on Mr. Johnson’s list also attracted notice: Ian Botham, a colorful and charismatic retired cricket player widely known as Beefy, and Claire Fox, a writer and politician who began as a Communist and migrated to the right over the years, joining the Brexit Party and serving in the European Parliament.

Ms. Fox herself is no fan of the institution she is now joining, having praised others for turning down peerages. On Twitter, Ms. Fox said she still favored abolishing the Lords but that as long as it existed, she would be happy to argue for its mothballing while standing in its majestic chamber.

There was less debate about Mr. Johnson’s decision to recommend a peerage for his brother, Jo Johnson. While the younger Mr. Johnson has a good reputation — he served in Parliament and the cabinet before resigning to protest his brother’s handling of Brexit — most viewed it as an open-and-shut case of nepotism.

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