I try not to do too much politics (with a capital ‘P’) on this blog, but this piece, by Janice Turner, is just too good to miss. So let’s say I’m including it as an example of good journalism, good writing, good art, so we’ll allow it to circumvent the rules. Which is strangely appropriate...
“It has been quite the journey,” said Baroness Owen of Alderley Edge, beginning her maiden House of Lords speech. But “journey” has many modern usages, so which does she mean? Geographically, the red benches are but a half-mile from Downing Street where the noble lady was an undistinguished special adviser. Temporally, just eight years have elapsed since Charlotte Owen, now 30, graduated from the University of York.
Was it a social mobility journey? Owen spoke of her maternal grandparents who bought their own council house (yet not of her own private school). So her elevation, as the sadly thwarted Baroness Dorries of Anfield might have said, constitutes a one-woman levelling up. Or was it an “emotional journey”, the stuff of Strictly triumphs? Hard to tell, given that Owen declines all scrutiny about the exceptional talents that make her worthy of spending a probable half-century formulating British laws.
I used to compare the House of Lords to my freezer: where you shove all the pushing-its-sell-by-date stuff you can’t bear to bin. But lately it’s more an air fryer, which, with magical speed, turns raw into cooked or can give the stale and flaccid a palatable crunch. David Cameron, fattening in a fleece in his shepherd’s hut, curdled by dodgy lobbying dosh, writing rose garden memoirs about a milder political era he carelessly kiboshed, is now crispy Lord Cameron, foreign secretary: all kingly again in his Savile Row suit.
It’s awkward to say, given that my colleagues on these pages include nobility, but what a national disgrace is the House of Lords. (At a Times leaving do I realised too late I was scoffing about its corrupt appointments to a baroness: “Oh, sorry, I don’t mean you!”) But after decades observing the establishment at close quarters, I’ve seen how, with a few stolid exceptions, political appointees rarely bring a fine mind, specialist expertise or unique perspective to public life. They’re the mates at the Chequers barbecues, the solid backroom blokes, the big donors and brown-nosers, the clubbable, never the cussed.
Most likely, the “journey” Baroness Owen refers to is through a flaming tunnel of tabloid speculation. Questions about whether she could be Boris Johnson’s daughter or lover would be purest sexism if she’d been appointed by any other politician. But with his unknown number of children, rackety love life and a nepotism so shameless he ennobled his own brother and tried to knight his father, Stanley Johnson, it seems perfectly fair to ask.
Youth in itself is not the issue: few would balk at Baroness Malala, aged 26. But you can look at Owen’s CV from every possible angle and find no clue. The House of Lords Appointments Commission (Holac) never shows its workings, so all we know is that Owen “is in good standing in the community in general” and her “past conduct” will not bring the upper chamber into disrepute. But does the Lords have any repute left to diss?
Johnson finally killed the golden goose, which for generations parped out lovely eggs, rich in attendance allowances, central London parking spaces plus the kudos born of our abiding deference to aristocratic titles, which secures other lucrative sinecures and places on boards. Perhaps we should be grateful he was so flagrant, doling out peerages to his partygate crew, so that the need for reform is so clear, and desired by 71 per cent of the public now.
After Owen’s speech, which kindly older peers indulged like a grandchild’s school play, another Johnson appointee materialised. This was only the second speech by Lord Lebedev, Baron of Hampton and Siberia. A bit ungrateful really, given the urgency and unusual zeal with which Johnson championed his peerage. That he ignored MI6’s explicit advice that Lebedev posed a national security risk is as creepily suspect as Jeremy Corbyn’s pro-Russian response to the Skripal poisonings, and has never been fully explained. It demonstrated too the powerlessness of Holac to constrain a PM’s most egregious patronage. Johnson overrode its ruling, so a KGB officer’s son swaggered into our democracy’s heart.
More even than the feudal obscenity of 92 hereditary peers or the cash for honours practised by every party, which has turned the Lords into a bloated 785-member Mr Creosote, Lebedev and Owen signal urgency for change. Labour has already published Gordon Brown’s constitutional review, which proposes the second chamber become a house of the nations and regions: fully elected but not synced to the Commons cycle to ensure a different political composition. But much small print is missing, such as the type of proportional representation by which peers (or whatever they’ll be called) are elected. If this is the European list system, the appointment and ranking of candidates will be just as driven by political patronage.
Besides, do we want a house of ex-councillors or local grandees, with none of the specialist knowledge that the best of the Lords brings to legislative scrutiny? Every year Holac itself recommends exceptional individuals for peerages. These have included the scientist Susan Greenfield, statistician Claus Moser, spy chief Eliza Manningham-Buller and Big Issue founder John Bird. Brown’s paper does not allow for any non-elected appointments but what nation wouldn’t welcome such diverse talents, or even wish to keep a few bishops, as long as other religions are represented too.
Every government for decades has promised Lords reform, but never got beyond tweaks. Constitutional change is always seen as dry, too time-consuming to be worth the political capital. Now it looks inevitable, thanks to Baroness Owen: a scandal, a mystery and a national joke.