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Offering peerages and knighthoods for Brexit votes is disgraceful – and it won’t work

The prime minister has been accused of dangling the prospect of honours before Conservative MPs in an effort to secure their votes for the Brexit deal

John Rentoul
Tuesday 27 November 2018 12:54 GMT
Theresa May apologies for previously saying EU citizens had 'jumped the queue' under current immigration rules

As we learnt when Tony Blair was accused of offering peerages for loans to the Labour Party, British politicians are usually careful to avoid explicit offers of honours for favours.

There was never any evidence that Blair made such an offer, and the peerages for the four lenders were blocked anyway. The whole thing was a political stunt by the Scottish National Party and a huge waste of police time and taxpayers’ money.

Now Theresa May denies she recommended John Hayes, the Eurosceptic Conservative MP, for a knighthood as a bung for his vote on the Brexit deal. She told The Sun, in an interview today: “This has been misconstrued.”

Not only that; it hasn’t worked. Sir John, as he now is, this week announced he would be voting against the deal.

The prime minister suggested she had agreed the honour 10 months ago, when she sacked him: “When John ceased to be a minister, I had a conversation with him and I recognised the significant contribution that he had made over the years to the government.”

When Tom Newton Dunn, The Sun’s political editor, asked if she would offer any honours in exchange for votes in her battle to win over MPs, he was rewarded with her death stare and the icy answer: “I hope that when it comes to the vote Tom, all members of parliament will recognise the importance of delivering on Brexit.”

Of course they will. But they also know perfectly well that their chances of being nominated for an honour will not be harmed by voting for the Brexit deal next month. That is how part of the honours system works. One part is about recognising the selfless contribution to society of charity workers, have-a-go heroes and lollipop persons. Which is all very good. But the political part is about favours given and rewarded – albeit with nothing so crude as an offer in writing or in any other form of archivable communication.

This is a disgrace. In my view, all political honours should be abolished, along with the legislative function of the House of Lords. But it would be naive to imagine that politics by favours given and returned could ever be abolished. All we can hope for is that British politics continues to be as clean as possible and cleaner than politics in most other countries.

So, yes, some MPs might hope for an honour if they vote for the deal, even as they persuade themselves that it is the least worst option anyway. And there may be people who think they are acting for the prime minister in hinting and winking that she might “recognise the significant contribution” certain Tory MPs have made over the years.

But it is hard to imagine such unbankable assumptions would sway more than a couple of votes. With the prime minister currently facing a majority of about 170 against the deal in the House of Commons, such reprehensible forms of persuasion are not going to make the difference.

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