Concern is growing within Whitehall over Boris Johnson’s decision to make a former political aide the UK’s youngest ever life peer, amid claims that she only entered Downing Street’s political office to cover for another official’s maternity leave.
The former prime minister’s resignation honours list caused months of angst within the government as a result of some of the names that Johnson intended to either place in the House of Lords or award with another gong. It has already been confirmed that eight people that Johnson had wanted to place in the second chamber were rejected by the commission tasked with vetting new peers.
However, one of the seven who were approved was Charlotte Owen, 29, who is set to be Britain’s youngest ever peer. “She was perfectly inoffensive, but she is the most junior person in political history to have received a peerage,” said one Whitehall source. “She was maternity leave cover in the political office.”
The Observer attempted to contact Owen about the claim. A source close to Johnson said: “The former prime minister made nominations for peerages and honours in line with precedents. He believes that all those who were nominated were meritorious and will contribute to public service.”
Those who have worked with Owen are concerned over the attention she has received since being awarded a peerage, arguing that she was good at her job and was easy to work with. However, government insiders said she performed a role more like an executive assistant than a top adviser. While no one suggested she had performed badly in her No 10 job, a Whitehall source said that her junior position and short length of service meant she was “the most egregious” addition to Johnson’s peerage list. “It is impossible to defend, even as somebody who broadly thinks the current peerage system is right,” they said. “She was just incredibly junior.”
There is already a dispute over how long Owen served in Downing Street. While her own LinkedIn profile states that she served as a No 10 special adviser from February 2021 until October 2022, she is not listed in the official government directory of special advisers published in June 2021. She does appear in the official list published in July 2022. Even then, she split her time between working for Johnson and the then chief whip, Chris Heaton-Harris.
Owen’s career in Westminster began in earnest in 2017. After stints as an intern, including in Johnson’s office, she worked in the offices of Tory MPs Alok Sharma, Jake Berry and Johnson before becoming a senior parliamentary assistant to the former prime minister in 2020. She later took a post in the political office in No 10. One former Downing Street figure said she did not attend the most senior meetings for most of her time there.
However, close allies of Johnson have issued a strong defence of Owen. Sir James Duddridge, who served as the former prime minister’s private parliamentary secretary from February to July 2022, spoke out in support of her role last week.
“As Boris’s PPS I can confirm Charlotte worked in No 10 as an adviser since February 2021 and did an outstanding job working for the boss,” he said. “She was in the shadows but was a serious player but never wanted to be in the limelight like so many inferior people.”
Heaton-Harris also praised Owen, telling the Times: “She was an outstanding special adviser to me in my role as chief whip jointly with the prime minister. Nobody had their finger on the pulse of the parliamentary party like she did. The House of Lords is a place which needs to reflect the whole of society, and I know she will work hard and make an outstanding contribution.”
Like all peerages, the proposed elevation for Owen was vetted by the House of Lords Appointments Commission (Holac). However, the commission can only vet potential peers over propriety. It does not advise on their suitability for the Lords.
Downing Street has been desperate to keep as far removed as possible from Johnson’s list, with senior figures anticipating for weeks that it would cause major controversy. Insiders said that Rishi Sunak’s team had simply waved through the final list that arrived from Holac. Johnson’s allies remain deeply suspicious of No 10’s role, however.
Nadine Dorries, a Tory MP fiercely loyal to Johnson, was prevented from receiving a peerage. She says that she had been led to believe she could stand down at the election and claim her peerage at that point, but found out that “suddenly that wasn’t allowed” when it was too late. Fellow Johnson allies Sharma and Nigel Adams, said by one insider to have pushed for Owen’s peerage, were also excluded from the final list.
Opposition figures are now pressuring Sunak to speak out on the honours handed out by Johnson. “The fact that Boris Johnson was allowed an honours list in the first place is a disgrace after his lying and lawbreaking,” said Christine Jardine, the Lib Dem Cabinet office spokesperson. “His latest attacks on our parliamentary democracy are the latest proof that he should not have been able to hand out gongs. Rishi Sunak should make a personal plea to all those scheduled to become peers as a result of Johnson and urge them to turn these honours down.”