The government’s decision to give a knighthood to Lynton Crosby, the political consultant who masterminded the re-election of David Cameron, has left a bad taste in the mouth — even among other Conservatives.
The New Year’s honours list is supposed to reward the great and the good with fancy titles for a lifetime of “public service.” An ideal candidate might be a tireless charity worker or an Olympic gold medallist — someone who went above and beyond the call, but not for financial gain.
The Crosby knighthood, however, looks grubby.
Crosby only arrived in the country in 2005. And while his election strategy — to focus relentlessly on the handful of marginal seats the Tories needed to win, and pretty much ignore everything else — was genius, it was not an act of charity. He was paid £500,000, according to The Mirror.
That’s why Conservative MP Mark Garnier made some headlines today by telling Radio 4’s Today show, “I can see why people would be upset about it. He worked in a professional capacity for the Conservative Party …. I’m probably sympathetic with those people who think it’s a bad idea.”
But a different Tory MP — Bernard Jenkin — told Radio 4 something much more telling later in the day. Crosby received the awards because “he’s a committed Conservative,” Jenkin said.
Jenkin’s quote is amazing in part because he simply said it aloud. Everyone knows that people are given titles to reward them for donations to political parties. But when you’re a member of the governing party, you’re not supposed to say it out loud.
The World at One’s gave Jenkin ample opportunity to come up with a better fig-leaf reason for the Crosby knighthood. Here’s their conversation:
Shaun Ley: Do you think it’s a bad idea to give him a knighthood?
Bernard Jenkin: No I don’t actually. What are we saying? That if you’re in politics you’re not in public service and therefore you shouldn’t be honored? Is that the implication?
Ley: The question that has been raised is whether it is appropriate to give an honour to someone who is financially recompensed for running something commercially for an independent political party.
Jenkin: I think this misunderstands who Lynton Crosby is. Lynton started out in life as an ordinary political campaigner, albeit for a party in another country, uh, but he is a very committed Conservative and he could have turned his hand to many things, he’s turned his hand to politics. Though he was paid for what he did, he probably would earn far more money doing other things.
Ley: Is that a public service that warrants a knighthood? That is the question that has been raised.
Jenkin: I would say yes.
So there it is. If you want a knighthood, you need to be “a committed Conservative” who might “earn far more money doing other things.”
Jenkin’s comments are doubly surprising because in 2013 he was part of a commission that reviewed the honours system in an attempt to rid it of exactly this type of naked cronyism and patronage. That select committee concluded:
- There should be no special privileges or quotas for groups of society or certain professions:
- … All who get honours must be judged on whether they have done things above and beyond their normal duty, shown extraordinary leadership and shown extraordinary service to the community.
- … The honours system should be free of political influence. We recommend the removal of the Prime Minister’s role in providing strategic direction for the honours system, and the renaming of the “Prime Minister’s List”. Instead the Government should establish an Independent Honours Commission to oversee the honours system.
And the minutes of that committee reflect this note, from MP Paul Flynn:
While there is reluctance to accept the full truth, honours are still bought by party donors. There is a transparently untrue pretence that merit is the main criterion for political honours. All major parties have cynically used the honours system to advance their agendas, to dispose of the troublesome, to silence the soothsayers or to reward their lobotomised loyalists.
It’s a shame Jenkin couldn’t see what Garnier saw.