The mystery of Boris Johnson’s honours list: why is Sunak putting up with it?

There is no requirement to give the former PM this privilege and the fallout is likely to linger

It is both astonishing and somehow unsurprising that Boris Johnson sought a knighthood for his father before the idea was vetoed.

There is little left Johnson can do to shock the public or political establishment, after his chequered premiership that left him as the first prime minister to be hit with a criminal fine while in office.

And Johnson is still under investigation by the House of Commons privileges committee over whether he misled parliament by saying all Covid rules were followed in Downing Street. The police are also looking at fresh evidence of whether Johnson broke the rules at further gatherings at Chequers and No 10.

The more baffling thing is why Rishi Sunak is allowing his unpopular predecessor any sort of honours list at all, after claiming to be running a more ethical and professional government.

Johnson’s list comes with a political cost to Sunak of more bad publicity about rewards being handed to cronies, not to mention the two MPs – Alok Sharma and Nadine Dorries – who were set to stand down triggering difficult byelections. Sunak was believed to have removed their names from the list, but Dorries took the decision to stand down herself on Friday, prompting a byelection anyway.

Sunak’s decision to allow this controversy to brew is all the more mystifying because there is no statutory requirement to grant Johnson an honours list – and it is only a relatively historically recent convention.

Daniel Bruce, the chief executive of Transparency International UK, said on Friday it was “increasingly difficult to justify seats for life in our parliament being routinely handed out by former prime ministers, whether they have been rejected by the public or lost the confidence of their own colleagues”.

Aside from the ethical point, there is also no love lost between Sunak and Johnson, with a bitter briefing war between them over who is responsible for Johnson’s missing WhatsApp evidence requested by the Covid inquiry in recent weeks.

Johnson still blames Sunak for triggering his departure from office with his resignation as chancellor. And Sunak is still struggling to deal with the fallout of bad behaviour and negative public perceptions of the Conservatives after Johnson’s time in office.

No 10 has fallen back on claims that Sunak believes that prime ministers are entitled to resignation honours. But the furore around Johnson’s list means that even some Conservative MPs think the prime minister should have been stronger at standing up to Johnson.

Backbench MPs suggest Sunak is not rejecting the list because he is in a weak position within his own party, with a group of Johnson supporters still present on the backbenchers and among some party donors. Other theories include that he is determined to get an honours list of his own – or some sort of deal reached between Johnson and Sunak to keep the peace in the party.

Sunak appears to have been keen to settle the matter after nine months of wrangling, and before the privileges committee publishes its verdict or the police decide whether to launch new formal inquiries. But the political fallout is likely to be lasting, and it means yet another week when the prime minister has failed to draw a line under Johnson’s toxic political legacy.


Rowena Mason Whitehall editor

The GuardianTramp

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