Of ermine and short-tailed weasels

Image by Sadie Parker
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When you read through the announcement of honours and peerages — the Dissolution Peerages of 2019 and the Political Peerages of 2020 — and find that awarding the former prime minister’s husband a knighthood and the current prime minister’s brother a peerage are the least controversial items on the list, you know the country is in trouble.

To his credit, Lord Fowler, Speaker of the House of Lords, has been quick to condemn Boris Johnson’s nominations as “a lost opportunity to reduce numbers in the House of Lords.” The Electoral Reform Society has calculated that based on the average claim of a peer, the new 36 peers are likely to cost the taxpayer an additional £1.1m a year. Meanwhile Boris Johnson is reportedly throwing his toys out of his pram because he wanted to appoint even more peers, but some of his proposals were blocked by the House of Lords Appointments Commission. Personally, I’m more concerned about the debasement of our democracy, the further departure from decency, and the damage to our international reputation.

Let’s begin with Sir Ian “dick pic” Botham. Yes, he thrilled as a cricketer and has raised as much money for the NHS as Captain Tom (now also a knight of the realm) – albeit over a much longer period and at a far younger age. Surely his knighthood was reward enough, as it was for Sir Captain Tom Moore? Captain Tom actually put his life on the line to serve his country and fought for us with distinction against actual Nazis in the skies above our hallowed island. Ian Botham campaigned hard for Brexit. Why reward Botham for having espoused an ideology that has caused more division in our country since the English Civil War, makes break-up of our own union of nations all but inevitable and, by the government’s own admission, promises to make those who can least afford it poorer?

Gisela Stuart is another nominee. A former Labour-in-name-only MP, she was a big cheese in Vote Leave. She stood down in 2017 rather than face the wrath of the electorate after betraying those she had promised to protect. Dominic Cummings credits her with having been critical in the take-up of the “more money for the NHS” duplicity. But there’s an area of deception where, being German-born, she was even more valuable: allaying voters’ concerns about what would happen to their family members resident in the EU and to their EU friends, neighbours and colleagues here.

Worry not! They’ll be able to rely on the Vienna Convention, which protects treaty rights once they’ve been exercised, promised Gisela – a reassurance echoed in select committees and on national TV by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg, to name but a few. Of course, this was a big fat lie, as politicians of their seniority and experience must have known. The Vienna Convention on treaties is only applicable to the signatories of treaties, i.e. states, not individuals.

Upward of five million people have suffered the stress and strain of being used as a bargaining chip for four years. While EU countries have continued to make their UK residents feel welcome, even as their status remains uncertain, EU citizens in the UK have been made to apply to stay in their own homes. The inefficient Settled Status system sometimes produces nonsensical decisions, rejecting people who have lived in this country for decades, paid taxes all their working lives and had several generations of their family here, ordering them to pack up and leave in four weeks’ time. Our government remained unmoved by this cruel and inhuman situation.

Now the Withdrawal Agreement is in force, locking in inferior rights to those enjoyed hitherto in direct contradiction to Vote Leave pledges. Yet, despite this, there was often positive, reassuring rhetoric about citizens’ rights from pro-Brexit politicians. Gisela Stuart even chaired the British Future Enquiry, which recommended unilateral action by the UK on citizens’ rights. By all accounts she chaired it well, and even publicly espoused its recommendations, but when it came time for a vote in Parliament, she voted against her own party’s amendment to the Brexit Bill to enact them.

“Gisela Stuart gave EU citizens hope,” wrote Professor Steve Peers. “What a shame she didn’t give them her vote.” He was too polite. It was nothing short of a betrayal, and the last thing the perpetrator deserves is elevation to the House of Lords.

Disgust at the nomination of Botham and Stuart for peerages pales into insignificance compared to Boris Johnson’s nomination of dual Irish-British national Claire Fox. She’ll be a crossbencher because the Brexit Party (which she had represented as an MEP for a few short months and whose sole contribution was boorish behaviour that brought shame on our country) is all but extinct. Johnson is showing himself to be even more insensitive than Man-of-the-Paypal Nigel Farage, who took a lot of flak for putting Fox at the head of his Euro elections list for the North West, and thus for Warrington.

I still get teary-eyed about the 1993 Warrington bombing, even though I wasn’t there – so great was the shock of the murder of two little boys out shopping for Mother’s Day cards. I remember later watching Panorama open-mouthed as Colin and Wendy Parry, the parents of one of the victims, listened politely to an American woman telling them that killing their son was the right thing to do. Extraordinary as it seems, that woman wasn’t alone in her heartless opinion. At home, Claire Fox was busy defending the IRA’s abominable act to anyone who would listen.

During the May 2019 Euro elections, old wounds were reopened. The majority of Warrington was horrified at the thought of Fox representing them. Colin Parry called on Fox to disavow her defence of the IRA, and to her credit, Sally Bate, another of the Brexit Party’s candidates, resigned in protest. While Fox professes to feel sympathy for all who lost their lives in the Troubles, she still stubbornly refuses to apologise for her pro-IRA stance. What utter hypocrisy of Boris Johnson, who for years taunted Jeremy Corbyn for alleged IRA sympathies, to invite a self-confessed IRA supporter to become one of our peers. Worse still, he’s the only PM who has not engaged with the Parrys’ Peace Foundation, and has even cut its funding.

Yet that’s not even the worst to report of professional contrarian Claire Fox. She is also on record claiming the evidence of the Bosnian genocide was faked, supporting the dissemination of jihadi videos on the Internet in the name of free speech, and, worse still, defending child pornography, which she excuses with the bizarre assertion that “most child porn isn’t porn because it’s simulated.” Is there no depravity that this woman won’t defend? It is to be hoped that she finds a shred of decency and sticks to her previous calls for the abolition of the House of Lords by declining to become a member of it.

Image by Sadie Parker

Of all the appointments, perhaps that of Evgeny Lebedev’s appointment is the most sinister. The son of a billionaire former KGB London station-chief and current owner of the London Standard, he is a long-time “ally” of the Prime Minister. It was to his villa in Tuscany that Johnson (then foreign secretary) slunk off to for a bunga-bunga party, giving his security detail the slip. How audacious to name him to the House of Lords a mere week after the long-awaited Russia report criticised the House of Lords as a hotbed of Russian influence and activism.

The objections don’t end there. Kate Hoey, who as a Labour-cum-UKIP MP was caught disseminating fake news on more than one occasion, has been elevated. As has Charles Moore, Johnson’s pompous former boss at the Daily Telegraph, responsible for headlines like “The real challenge for this government lies in standing up to unelected power.” Sir Henry Bellingham, one of the wealthiest MPs during his tenure from 1983-1997 and 2001-2019, had to be reprimanded for breaking parliamentary rules and failing to declare his interests. I guess chairing an African mining and construction company can easily slip the mind.

Which brings us full circle to Jo Johnson, who quit his brother’s government, citing “unresolvable tension” between “family loyalty and the national interest”. Rumour has it he has been ennobled at the behest of the Prime Minister’s father, Stanley Johnson. Should appointment to the House Lords be used as family therapy, one wonders? What about Rachel Johnson? Or was pointing out that her brother uses the Commons dispatch box as a bully pulpit, and his drive to no-deal Brexit is to please those who have shorted the pound and bet against the country, just too on the money?

This deplorable list of nominations has probably done more to convert “reformers” of the House of Lords to “abolitionists”, but we should be careful what we wish for. Despite all the good work of the more diligent members, the House of Lords has become a costly, ghastly affront to the British people. That said, we should think carefully about its replacement before taking a wrecking ball to it. After all, if Johnson and Cummings have anything to do with it, we could end up with something a lot, lot worse…