The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The second full day of recess and an emergency Downing Street press conference to announce that coronavirus wasn’t going to be all over by Christmas after all had ensured that little attention had been paid to Boris Johnson’s “summer holiday” peerages list.
For Boris it had been the most fun he’d had since becoming prime minister a year ago. The chance to make good on his promise to level up the country by rewarding friends and family with jobs for life. It had, though, taken him a while to get into the swing of things.
“I thought we had promised to reduce the numbers in the Lords, not increase them,” Boris had said to Dominic Cummings.
“That’s what every prime minister says when he or she comes into office, so obviously we will say we remain committed to reducing the numbers while increasing them,” Classic Dom had replied. “Nobody can resist a bit of patronage once they get the chance. So just get stuck in and enjoy yourself.”
Unusually for Boris, he started off somewhat cautiously, with peerages for Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond. Just to prove he had no lingering resentments towards two former MPs he couldn’t stand and had effectively thrown out of the Commons by withdrawing the party whip. Still, it wasn’t as if they would be in a position to do much harm in the Lords. Just a bit of box-ticking here and there.
Then there had been something for Nigel Dodds. The least he could do after first stitching up the DUP over Northern Ireland in the Brexit withdrawal agreement and then calling a general election in which the DUP leader had lost his seat.
“Don’t forget the money men,” Dom reminded him. “We wouldn’t want people to get the idea that donating large amounts of cash to the Tory party was no longer a safe way in to the House of Lords.” Michael Spencer’s name was hastily added to the list.
As was Edward Lister’s. Steady Eddie had stood by him for years and was now his chief of staff. And hopefully most people would have forgotten his possible conflict of interest when he pocketed £487,000 from a Malaysian property developer when he was the £68k-per-year chairman of Homes England, a government body set up to fund affordable housing. There again, who really cared if they hadn’t.
Boris hastily rattled his way through a few more names. He was tempted to leave out Charles Moore simply because the former editor of the Spectator had had his heart set on a peerage since he was 15 and it would have been great to disappoint him, but then largesse had won the day. Besides, Moore would be bound to be even more slavishly supportive in ermine.
There also had to be something for Gisela Stuart. The former Labour MP had done her bit by keeping quiet as Boris and Michael Gove had told lie after lie on the Vote Leave campaign bus in 2016 and she could probably use the £300 per day. He’d heard she was down on her luck. Talking of which, Kate Hoey ought to make it on the list. Not because he particularly admired her – no one did – but because it would upset almost every Labour voter.
“This just isn’t really doing it for me,” said Dom. “I mean, it’s OK. We have a decent haul of objectionable people. But we need to do better, with some really big names. Names that will really prove to everyone that we are taking the piss big time. That we really don’t give a shit what anyone thinks. So let me give you some suggestions. Evgeny Lebedev, for example.”
“You’re kidding me,” Boris replied. “He’s really only famous for giving lavish parties to posh people – just remember the state I was in when I got back from Perugia – and he’s the son of a former KGB agent. We’ll never get away with this just a week after the ISC report highlighting excessive levels of infiltration into British political life by Russian oligarchs.”
“Just watch us. And then you could also go for Claire Fox.”
“Wasn’t she a member of the Revolutionary Communist party who said the Bosnian genocide was fake news, has refused to apologise for defending the IRA bombing in Warrington and is dedicated to overthrowing the House of Lords?”
“Sure, but they all say that until they’re asked to join the club. Now she’s a rightwing rent-a-gob who will do anything for a bit of attention.”
“OK, you’re on,” said Boris, warming to his task. “Then let’s also include Ian Botham. Not for his cricketing achievements, obviously, but just because he’s a Brexiteer who became so boring he was even dropped from the Sky commentary team.”
“Loving it,” said Classic Dom. “Talking of boring, how about we also appoint a former Tory MP who was so spectacularly forgettable he never achieved anything of any importance throughout his entire career?”
“Not Henry Bellingham?”
“The very same. Can you imagine anyone who will be more useless as a peer? Present company excluded of course.”
Eventually Boris had decided on 35 names, along with a knighthood for Philip May. Couldn’t have Philip thinking he was in the same league as Denis Thatcher, who got a hereditary peerage just for putting up with Maggie. But he could still do with one more name. Then it came to him. The People’s Government had done corruption, incompetence and croneyism, but somehow nepotism had been overlooked. Within seconds he was on the phone to his brother.
“I’m making you a peer, Jo,” he said.
“But what for? I haven’t done anything.”
“That’s the whole point, old boy. Besides, you haven’t done any less than some of the others on my list.”
“Dad will go bonkers. He’s desperate for a peerage.”
“I know. But it will be great to make him sweat for another year or two.”