Lords of Sleaze Part 2
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on September 17 2020
The recent Johnson list has little to do with “honour”. Although, it is a particularly egregious example of cynicism and contempt for the nation’s institutions and citizens, there is a long history of prime ministers doing this kind of thing. Monarchs also did it. Titles have constantly been granted to court favourites and allies. James 1 created the title of baronet and sold baronetcies for £1,500 each to raise money for his war in Ireland. There were regular controversies over New Year honours lists, such as when William Waldorf Astor, an American property and press mogul who, after generous contributions to British charities, became Lord Astor in 1916 and Viscount Astor the following year. In the UK, bribery and corruption is not limited to the Conservative Party.
The Liberal politician David Lloyd George once remarked that “A fully-equipped duke costs as much to keep up as two dreadnoughts. They are just as great a terror and they last longer.” He described the House of Lords as “five hundred men chosen at random from the ranks of the unemployed”.
Between December 1916 and July 1922 1,500 knighthoods were awarded and Lloyd George awarded 91 peerages within the same period, twice as many as had been created in the previous twenty years. What distinguished the sale of honours under Lloyd George was the sheer scale of the operation and the brazen manner in which honours were offered for sale. Maundy Gregory, a former actor and theatrical impresario, (who openly touted honours from an office in Parliament Square) operated a price list for peerages, ranging from £10,000 (more than £400,000 in today’s money) for a knighthood up to £40,000 for a baronetcy. Gregory seems to have targeted wealthy but dodgy men who hoped to buy some respectability. Gregory invented the Order of the British Empire to fill a gap in the market for those who could not afford a knighthood. As a result, 25,000 people were ‘given’ the OBE over a period of four years and the OBE was commonly known as the Order of the Bad Egg.
In the July 1922 honours list, the following were rewarded: John Drughorn (convicted in 1915 for trading with the enemy), William Vestey (convicted of tax evasion), and Joseph Robinson (a South African who had only recently been convicted of a £500,000 share fraud.) George V complained that “the Robinson case must be regarded as little less than an insult to the Crown and to the House of Lords“. The press turned against Lloyd George. As a consequence, the Honours (Preventions of Abuses) Act 1925 made it a criminal offence to accept a monetary reward in return for granting an honour.
Harold Wilson and the Lavender List
In 1976, Harold Wilson’s resignation honours list caused merriment as well as anger. One recipient of a life peerage was the industrialist Joseph Kagan, who invented Gannex, a waterproof raincoat fabric that was frequently worn by Wilson. Lord Kagan, (popularly known as Lord Gannex) was jailed for 10 months in 1980 for misappropriating company funds. Joe Haines was Wilson’s press secretary. He is still going strong, frequently writing tetchy letters to the New Statesman and the Guardian. Haines alleged that the list was drafted on lavender notepaper by the head of Wilson’s office, Marcia Williams, who became Lady Falkender. Haines claimed to have turned down honours himself because he did not want to appear on the list.
During his first term of office, Tony Blair created 203 life peers whom the Conservatives referred as “Tony’s Cronies”. In March 2006, several nominations for life peerages by Blair were rejected by the Appointments Commission. Those put forward had lent, at the suggestion of Lord Levy (Blair’s tennis partner, a former pop impresario known as “Lord Cashpoint” – manager of luminaries such as Alvin Stardust and Bad Manners), large sums of money to the Labour Party. There was a long and involved police investigation during which many MPs, including Blair (three times), were questioned. Levy was arrested. It was later discovered that Blair had given an honour to two-thirds of people who had donated over £50,000 to the Labour Party; donors who had given over £1,000,000 were either awarded with a life peerage or a knighthood. The Labour Party acknowledged that it had taken loans worth £18 million from individuals, more than three times what it had previously reported. It did not say who had made the loans, which accounted for most of the money Labour said it had spent on the May 2005 elections. The case was eventually dropped by the Crown Prosecution Service but the Labour Party’s funds were disastrously hit by returning the loans and Blair’s own reputation was further undermined.
In November 2014, former Liberal Democrat Treasurer, Lord Razzall, while plugging his book on BBC radio, said that he was regularly approached by wealthy businessmen, often with no interest in politics, who would appear “out of the blue” offering million-pound donations in exchange for a seat in the House of Lords. The Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act 1925 states that it is a criminal offence for someone to offer “any gift, money or valuable consideration as an inducement or reward for procuring or assisting or endeavouring to procure the grant of a dignity or title of honour”. Razzall, who worked as a solicitor for nearly 30 years, never thought of notifying the police. The three biggest donors to the Liberal Democrats had been given peerages by Nick Clegg when he was deputy prime minister in David Cameron’s coalition.
In less than a year of becoming PM, David Cameron created 117 new peers – prompting a group of existing Lords to write a pamphlet entitled “House Full”. David Cameron was accused of taking cronyism to new heights by bestowing honours on 46 aides, advisers (such as a knighthood for Lynton Crosby, the controversial political strategist credited with engineering the Conservative election victory in 2015) and ministers honours in his resignation list. He even gave an MBE to his barber, Raffaele Claudio Carbosiero, in 2014 for “services to hairdressing”.
So far Boris Johnson has not seen fit to reward his hairdresser (if he has one).
Boris Johnson did not just reward his cronies, he punished, by withholding expected honours, his enemies, like former speaker John Bercow, as well as those who he felt should have given him more support, such as Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, who warned of the damage Brexit would do to the economy.
Johnson showed his utter cynicism in responding to criticism of Russian influence in British elections by giving a peerage to his friend Evgeny Lebedev, Soviet-born son of a former KGB agent, who happened to own the Evening Standard. Veronica Wadley was editor of the Evening Standard when that paper backed Johnson’s campaign to replace Ken Livingstone as London’s mayor in 2008. She got a CBE in 2018. This time round she got a life peerage.
A life peerage also for James Wharton who was created Baron Wharton of Yarm, becoming the youngest male member of the House at the age of 36. He made a number of visits to Sri Lanka. Wharton denied allegations that he had become too close to the Sri Lankan government. Wharton helped Johnson with his leadership bid.
Peerages went to a number of people who have donated generously to the Tory party: Peter Cruddas who donated £50,000 to Johnson’s leadership campaign and has given over £3 million to the Conservatives since 2007; billionaire businessman Michael Spencer, a former Tory treasurer who has given around £5 million to the party; Jon Moynihan, who chaired Vote Leave’s finance committee and donated £100,000 to Johnson’s leadership bid,