Boris Johnson's father to join the club - of PMs' relatives given knighthoods

Questions have been raised over what he has achieved to merit inclusion on the list - but it's part of a 'dishonourable' tradition in British politics

Boris Johnson, right, is believed to have nominated his father Stanley for a knighthood. Getty
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Stanley Johnson's autobiography — Stanley, I Presume? — makes for entertaining reading but the octogenarian's resume on the back cover is distinctly light on details, even if jobs with the Rockefellers, the World Bank, the UN and EU get a mention.

Few would suggest a long-dormant career is what has tipped the balance for the flamboyant Mr Johnson, a 2017 alumnus of the I'm a Celebrity TV show. For more than a century, the UK’s prime ministers have been embroiled in controversy over awarding honours to family and close friends.

The news this week that his son, Boris, had included the family patriarch in his proposed honours list after departing Downing Street served to highlight the not-so-distinguished British tradition of leaders bestowing titles on their relatives after spending time at the apex of power.

In recent years, few prime ministers have failed to raise eyebrows over their nominees. But Mr Johnson's nomination stands out for a few reasons, one of which being that it is usually a former leader's spouse that receives the title.

Mr Johnson follows Sir Denis Thatcher, who became a baronet in the last hereditary title awarded in the UK.

Norma Major, wife of John Major, was made a dame in 1999 during Tony Blair's government.

The general election that delivered a surprise landslide for the younger Mr Johnson resulted in an honours list that included a knighthood for Philip May, husband of his predecessor — and bitter foe — Theresa May.

Graham Smith, chief executive of campaign group Republic, told The National that the system is weakened by the intertwining of family and personal patronage with recognition of distinguished service.

“The honours system is dishonourable and corrupt. Boris Johnson’s nepotism only shines a light on a century-old problem,” he said.

“Honours should award only those who have made some kind of sacrifice or committed an act of extraordinary heroism. Handing them out to friends, family and political supporters is a clear abuse of office.

“We need to scrap the whole system and start again — we need a system independent of government, ultimate answerable to parliament but without the involvement of politicians in the nominating or awarding of honours.”

The elder Mr Johnson's daughter Rachel said that her father would probably have received a nomination from a prime minister at some point due to his activism on environmental issues. He worked on such issues for the UN and was in the European Parliament in its earliest days more than four decades ago.

As Stanley, I Presume? illustrates, there was a great element of chance in a varied life — which has been peppered with controversy.

Boris Johnson was named after a Russian man in Mexico who gave Mr Johnson the tickets to fly back to New York with his pregnant wife. However devoted to his spouse he appeared at the time, he has been accused of domestic abuse against her as well as sexual harassment against two women.

A former member of the European Parliament, he voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, with his son campaigning to leave, though he has since expressed support for Brexit. Last year, he was accused of hypocrisy after securing French citizenship.

Leader of the opposition Labour Party Keir Starmer has questioned what Mr Johnson has done to deserve a knighthood. Mr Starmer was knighted for a previous career as a public prosecutor.

“The idea that Boris Johnson is nominating his dad for a knighthood — you only need to say it to realise just how ridiculous it is,” he told LBC Radio.

“It's classic of a man like Johnson. I mean, I think the public will just think this is absolutely outrageous.”

The issue is an irresistible talking point in the UK — so much so, that some of those commenting leave their own inherited good fortune out of the conversation.

Harry Beaufort, 12th Duke of Beaufort, joined a Twitter thread last week to call for an explanation.

“There surely has to be some explanation as to why someone is being given a knighthood?” he asked.

Sarah Smith, the BBC's Washington correspondent, did the same thing when Sir Philip was knighted in 2020, only to admit her own mother was the spouse of a party leader who had been elevated to the House of Lords.

Yet Mr Johnson's honours list poses a political headache for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who must sign off on his predecessor's choices while trying to keep Mr Johnson’s loyalists on side.

Mr Sunak's spokesman said the report was “speculative”.

“Long-standing rules guard the honours process and there are no plans to change that,” he said.

David Cameron stepped back from granting one to his wife, Samantha, but she is already listed in the Debretts guide to the nobility. Her father, Reginald Sheffield, is the 8th baronet and owns a grand estate in England.

Sam Power, a senior lecturer and expert in political corruption at the University of Sussex, has described the honours system as “cronyism and nepotism at its finest”.

“In the British system, there’s much to be gained from having a knighted businessman in the family,” he told The Week.

“Even if one can make a pretty good case Stanley Johnson is deserving of a knighthood, it will be incredibly hard to shake the not unreasonable perception that he’s only getting one because of who his son is — that it is cronyism and nepotism at its finest.”

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accused Mr Johnson of “discrediting the honours system and discrediting the office of prime minister”.

If one thing is more incendiary in the UK than handing out titles, it is the role of the House of Lords, which is the second chamber of parliament and also a place where people with political connections are frequently elevated.

To date, 1,517 life peers have been created under the Life Peerages Act of 1958. During his tenure, Mr Blair created the most — 374 in total — life peerages for his supporters. These grouped appointments were referred to as “Tony’s cronies” by critics.

The highest number of appointments may have occurred in the 1990s but this is followed by the 2010s.

These decades marked Labour leaving office in 1997 and the Coalition entering in 2010 followed by the Conservative victory in 2015.

Updated: March 11, 2023, 7:28 AM