The UK House of Lords is the most peculiar parliamentary upper chamber in any democracy.
It has about 800 members who have a job for life. No other country anywhere has members of the state religion in their parliament as of right now – except Iran. In the UK, 26 bishops of the Church of England are in the House of Lords. There are 92 hereditary peers, those born into various, usually ancient, sometimes eccentric, noble families.
You could say this is a sign of progress. Until the 1990s, literally hundreds of hereditary peers could turn up to claim Lords membership. Fortunately, most Lords and Ladies most of the time don’t turn up at all. The 200 or 300 who do turn up regularly, however, tend to be well informed, experienced and decent people who want to do the best for the country.
Prime ministers can add to the numbers by rewarding favourites and cronies. Recent “honours lists” have included a former cricketer, a former member of a revolutionary communist group who supported Brexit, and the son of a former KGB officer.
Boris Johnson rewarded two obscure 30-somethings. Ross Kempsell was known as Mr Johnson’s tennis partner. Charlotte Owen appears to have been, like Lord Kempsell, some kind of aide, although no one quite remembers what her significant contribution might be. Both now have a lifetime’s employment – perhaps 50 years – making the laws of the UK.
But two things can be said in favour of this otherwise sclerotic and undemocratic institution.
The House of Lords includes about 200 wise and hardworking people, including former ambassadors, academics, lawyers and shrewd businesspeople. They are often good at refining or even rejecting laws passed by the House of Commons. Second, the Lords as a democratic institution may seem indefensible but it is undeniably useful. Prime ministers – to put it crudely – sometimes see the chamber as a posh dustbin into which troublesome rivals may be pushed, honoured and therefore forgotten.
All this may lead a future Labour government to scrap the house, though historically that’s easier to talk about than achieve. But all this is background to one of the most unpredictable initiatives of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.
He surprised Westminster by making former prime minister David Cameron a Lord. That means Mr Cameron can be Foreign Secretary and be held accountable for his actions in the upper chamber of parliament while a deputy will do similar business in the Commons.
Mr Cameron personally is affable, well informed and clever. But his past will haunt him. He came up with the idea of the disastrous Brexit referendum. History may record this as among the worst decisions taken by any UK prime minister since the Suez crisis of the 1950s.
Mr Cameron also carries considerable baggage about his business and lobbying interests once he left parliament, including on behalf of Greensill Capital (which went bust in 2021) and his attempts to secure millions of dollars in funding from Chinese investors.
Even so, you can see why Mr Sunak felt he needed Mr Cameron. He is a steadying influence in a rocky UK government. Mr Cameron, like 20 out of 57 prime ministers, went to Eton. Like 30 out of 57 prime ministers, he went to Oxford University. A pillar of establishment politics, he is also hard-working, listens to experts, and is competent, even when – in the case of his austerity and Brexit policies – he remains controversial.
As Foreign Secretary, Mr Cameron has the names, emails and phone numbers of the people who matter for UK foreign policy around the world. Nevertheless, he is coming back into a government when the Conservative party is intellectually exhausted after 13 years in power, riven by faction-feuding and undermined by ambitious (and sometimes talent-free) rebels in its own ranks.
The UK is certainly not ungovernable, but the Conservative party often looks that way. We have had five prime ministers in six years since the Brexit vote. We have also endured eight home secretaries since the Conservatives took office in 2010, 13 housing ministers and seven health secretaries since 2018.
The Conservative party, which used to prize competence and loyalty, is now riven between the far right, the right and the centre right, including most recently a row over the illegality of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda. Of course, we should wish Mr Cameron well. In his new task travelling to foreign capitals, he may hear some stark truths about post-Brexit Britain, including the fact that we have made ourselves far less important in Europe.
Washington insiders always prized the British voice within the EU, and that has gone. That means we have also become far less important as an ally of the US.
Moreover, no country can be strong abroad when it is weak at home. And no government can be strong at home when – as now – it is divided into competing factions that appear to loathe each other.
A general election is probable within a year. The polls say the people want a change.