But while successfully sidelining opposition from within Whitehall, John Major's initiative - announced yesterday - leaves political patronage intact, prompting angry attacks from opposition MPs. 'Why do Conservative governments, and only Conservative governments, wish to use the honours system as a form of patronage for their political supporters?' John Smith, the Labour leader, asked.
Long-serving Tory backbench MPs can still normally expect a knighthood, but they, like businessmen, civil servants and diplomats, may have to provide more proof that they have earnt it under criteria set out by the Prime Minister in the Commons yesterday.
'In future there should be no assumption that honours will automatically be attached to particular posts in either the public or the private sector,' Mr Major said.
Members of the public will be able to nominate people for awards by obtaining a form from the Honours Secretariat at 10 Downing Street. The changes, most of which will apply to the next Queen's Birthday Honours List, mean an end to automatic knighthoods for government law officers and ambassadors, and to awards for simply doing one's job properly.
All honours will be awarded 'on merit, for exceptional achievement, or exceptional service over and above what normally might be expected', Mr Major said. There should be different levels of awards to reflect different levels of achievement and honours should place more emphasis on voluntary service.
While the new criteria indicate the possibility of a more selective approach to awards for industrialists and politicians, the 'gong' scores of the civil and diplomatic services and armed forces appear to have exercised Mr Major rather more. Bringing forward the five- yearly Review of Honours to the summer, he has asked it to ensure that numbers of awards to state servants reflect the role and size of the three services. It indicates the extent to which the Prime Minister has beaten opposition from Whitehall mandarins.
He is keen to recognise community work, such as inner-city initiatives that could divert young people from crime. He has asked the review to take greater account of work in the voluntary sector and service to the community. The changes are viewed as radical in Downing Street. But Mr Smith said: 'Have you no shame about the way that each year eight Conservative MPs regularly and automatically collect knighthoods, for no other reason but being supporters of the ruling political party? Do you not think the connection between awards of honours and donations by companies to the Conservative Party is a shoddy misuse of a system set up to recognise public service?'
Mr Major insisted there was 'very stringent' independent scrutiny of all honours.
Only High Court judges will be exempt from the abandonment of automatic honours (all are knighted on appointment) on the ground, Mr Major said, that awards should not be thought to depend on government approval of legal judgments. Chris Mullin, Labour MP for Sunderland South, suggested the best way to preserve their independence was to give knighthoods to none of them.
All those who would have received the BEM will get its equivalent, the MBE, which will account for two-thirds of the Prime Minister's usual list of 1,000. The Military Medal for bravery by non-commissioned officers and lower ranks will be abolished. All will get the Military Cross, reserved for commissioned officers.
Malcolm Rifkind, the Secretary of State for Defence, is to announce separately the results of a wider review of gallantry awards.
The Queen has agreed to increase the numbers of investitures at Buckingham Palace and - for the first time - elsewhere in the country, although she will not conduct all of them herself.
Leading article, page 20
Privilege and reward, page 21