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The vices and virtues of Theresa May’s honours list

10 September 2019

7:41 AM

10 September 2019

7:41 AM

An awful lot of Theresa May’s resignation honours list is awful. In no particular order:

Knighting Geoff Boycott would be a horrible act for any PM, let alone one who actually did some good on domestic violence. Who cares if he punched a woman repeatedly in the face, he played great cricket, eh? A gruesome choice, even though he continues to deny the offence.

Knighting the communications Director who failed to communicate your central policy would be a misjudgement at the best of times. But Theresa May adds hypocrisy to the mix: she once cruelly and very publicly mocked David Cameron’s press chief for precisely the same honour. I was not the greatest fan of Sir Craig Oliver but I think he would have done a better job of selling the Withdrawal Agreement than Sir Robbie Gibb managed.

A peerage for Liz Sanderson? A peerage for a second-string media spad? Is May actively trying to make the Cameron honours list look good?

CBEs for Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy just look odd. They were far more important to May’s career than many who were given greater honours. Yes they left after that doomed election but if they were downgraded over that failure, how can greater prizes then go to those who were present for the greater failures that followed? CBEs on this list look like a dismal halfway house. They should have had peerages or nothing.

And yet. Much like the woman herself and her premiership, the May list has virtues that should not be overlooked:

The peerage for Kim Darroch is a fine decision and a good response to the poison he faced from a small group of nasty Brexiteers, simply for doing his job as ambassador to Washington. It’s also an elegant rebuke to Boris Johnson for undermining a British envoy to the point that he felt obliged to quit.

Gavin Barwell’s peerage is justified. He was a better chief of staff then partisan Brexiteer commentary will ever admit. The post-election May Government was often dysfunctional, but it could have been even worse but for Barwell.

If you hear anyone objecting to the knighthood for David Lidington, ignore them because they’re plainly an idiot. History will remember Lidington as the man who, as Europe minister, saw it all coming and warned David Cameron, only to be ignored. And when Cameron ran away, Lidington stuck around to try to clean up the mess his old boss left behind.

The most controversial knighthood deserves the most praise. The new Sir Olly Robbins faced years of bile from cowardly Brexiteers happy to smear a civil servant who could not answer back, for no reason other than that he did his job and pursued the policy of the Government.

In office May was far too slow to defend him, letting him absorb criticism that rightly belonged to her. Nor did she ever explain or acknowledge his remarkable negotiating wins, especially the all-UK backstop. That so many people believe that backstop to be a British failure and attribute that failure to incompetence or worse by Robbins says a great deal about May’s failures as a leader, and also about the through-the-looking-glass nature of Britain’s Brexit debate.

It comes far too late and is nowhere near enough of a response to the revolutionary Leavers’ systematic undercutting of the Civil Service, but May is still absolutely right to acknowledge Olly Robbins’ service to his country.


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