Whilst his associates were working on a secret leadership campaign on behalf of the present Chancellor, confidential information obtained by Sarawak Report reveals that the Australian political strategist and close advisor to Boris Johnson, Sir Lynton Crosby, was drawing up separate plans to enable the prime minister to pack the House of Lords in order to push through controversial legislation that has met with opposition in the past, including from his own Conservative benches.
The plot, developed away from Downing Street and official party and civil service channels, involved a blitzkrieg strategy to appoint 39 new Conservative peers over the upcoming summer recess, who would all be forced to sign an unprecedented pledge to obey the party whip.
In an executive summary the strategy document, entitled ‘Project Homer’, outlines the challenge facing the Prime Minister:
“To prevent further defeats on contentious government Bills (e.g. the Brexit Freedoms Bill, the Public Order and the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill) passing through the Lords in the coming parliamentary session, there are a limited number of potential solutions available.”
To counter the problem the key recommendation is that:
“The Prime Minister appoints (39) new peers as a matter of urgency. This will prevent major legislation in the coming parliamentary session suffering the same fate as prior Bills.”
Accompanying this measure should be “A reform of the whips; Improved rewards for loyal peers and discipline for those peers who do not turn up including a ‘name and shame’ league table of non-attendant peers”.
A careful PR strategy and series of distractions have also been devised with the purpose of diverting media coverage away from the intended power-grab onto stories about personalities and regional representation in the House of Lords.
Ennobling ex-Daily Mail Editor Paul Dacre would provide one controversy that would soak up attention suggests the report, recently drafted by Crosby’s CT Group, with its title chosen in apparent deference to Boris Johnson’s classical inclinations.
It would take the focus away from media and opposition accusations about “flooding” the Lords with loyalists the agency explains.
To further mitigate potential political fallout the paper says “it would also be possible to argue that Johnson has appointed fewer peers in his first three years than Blair or Cameron did”, and to claim that “The Prime Minister needs to appoint some peers from across England and the Union (Scotland and Wales) to improve the representation of these currently under-represented areas in the Lords”.
The cynical media strategy is candidly laid out:
“To anticipate the potential impact of new peer creations, we have analysed the media reaction to prior government announcement of new appointments.
This analysis shows that media attention in the past has been focused more on the personalities of those appointed rather than the actual numbers
For instance, in July 2020, media headlines largely picked up on the appointment of the cricketer Ian Botham or the Prime Minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, rather than the total number of appointments (36).
When in December 2020, the Prime Minister made further appointments, the headlines focused on Peter Cruddas, not the 17 peer creations.
Our analysis has also shown that media attention after previous announcements was relatively short lived. For instance, following the announcement of 17 new peers in December 2020, media articles on the topic ran for just two days.”
The briefing, which runs to some 20 pages, says presenting the mass recruitment as a move to bring in more regional, Scottish and Welsh representatives into the Upper House would provide “useful cover from any media backlash” for the real intention of gaining commanding control of the revising chamber after a series of crushing defeats.
“Given that the North and Wales are currently significantly under-represented, appointing some new peers from these areas could provide useful cover from any media backlash [against the mass appointment of new Conservative peers]” [Project Homer, draft document]
A tight schedule is presented for the planned creation of the new Conservative party peers, with ‘vetting’ beginning in July in order to have them in place in October for the next parliamentary session.
In a further open admission of deceptive tactics, the paper outlines how the appointments should be promoted as enabling a populist agenda presented as having been held up in the Lords on previous occasions.
This would provide the “perfect excuse” the document says and Brexit would provide “excellent cover” to effectively wipe out any resistance by the Upper House to anything an authoritarian prime minister might wish to achieve in the future.
“Given that in the coming session the government is likely to suffer big defeats on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and the Brexit Freedoms Bill; those likely defeats might be the perfect excuse for the PM to create more new Tory loyalist Peers on the grounds that the “People’s Brexit” can only be delivered by such a wedge of new Tories.”
“Indeed, Jacob Rees-Mogg has hinted at this in the recent past. Brexit would be excellent cover for such new creations.”
“Creating new Tory peers would allow the government to deliver on the “People’s Priorities” such as securing our borders, deporting criminals and clamping down on protests that disrupt the road and rail network.” [Project Homer, draft document]
The strategy document begins by setting out the dilemma faced by Boris Johnson who had experienced an unusually high level of defeats for his policy agenda in the House of Lords compared to previous prime ministers.
“Since Johnson became Prime Minister, the government has been defeated no fewer than 243 times. In the 2021/22 session alone, the government suffered 128 separate defeats – the highest since 1974″ the paper says.
The Lynton Crosby group attributes these failures not to genuine concerns by members of the Upper House over the government’s proposals but to a combination of perceived disciplinary issues relating to lazy, distracted and poorly managed Conservative peers who too often fail to turn up to vote.
Some ‘Crossbencher’ peers, who are nominally independent, can be relied upon to tow the government line, the document confides. Specifically there are 9 Cross-benchers who are considered to be safe supporters, amongst whom the ex-Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Hogan Howe, is named as one.
However, although Conservative Peers command by far the largest block (comprising 33% of the House of Lords) the complaint is far too many fail to turn up, let alone follow the party line. This is viewed to be largely the fault of the Whips Office, which the CT Group paper excoriates as inefficient and badly run, but also because the wrong people have been selected.
It is explained that too often Lords perceive themselves as having received their peerages because of their distinction in public life or their special knowledge and potential contribution, which can result in overly independent views: “They regard themselves as ‘non-partisan’ specialists”. Others have business or lifestyles that are distanced from the House of Lords itself, resulting in a poor attendance.
The new recruitment drive, to be managed by a newly created “Vetting Unit” would focus instead on availability and obedience by offering the country’s ultimate honour to prospective candidates only on the basis of a signed quid pro quo pledge of obedience to the prime minister.
“We must therefore overhaul the appointments system by creating a vetting unit. This will:
- Exclude candidates whose business interests and domicile are likely to reduce their attendance for votes
- Conduct a rigorous interview process with the leader and Chief Whip, explaining that they are working Peers and legislators. They should be required to sign a written undertaking to this effect.”
It is implied these contracts would be kept secret. Now exposed, the devious proposals are sure to be widely condemned as move towards authoritarianism and the neutering of the prized sense of independence and objectivity within the Upper House.
As one anonymous peer told Sarawak Report “there would be little remaining point in an institution reduced by such a secret arrangement to a rubber stamp”.
The Project Homer document repeatedly describes the Tory Whips Office in the House of Lords, presently managed by House Leader Baroness Natalie Evans, as poorly run. It plans to reform the institution into a ruthless carrot and stick operation where ‘good’ peers would be rewarded with further honours, dinners at Chequers and jobs as Prime Ministerial envoys, whereas disobedient peers would be publicly ‘Named and Shamed’ by releasing ‘League Tables’ of good and poor attenders to the media.
“There is little recognition of those Tory Peers who do attend and vote loyally. They feel taken for granted. This is in large measure reflects on the Leader in the House of Lords, who is a poor political manager. Incentivising loyalty could be achieved in the following ways:
- Honours such as the CBE ‘for political services’ are prized by Peers who do not have them
- Creation of more Special Envoys or Advisers to the Prime Minister, especially where a backbench peer has a special expertise or interest
- Dinners and lunches at Chequers for those with the best voting records….. Discipline for those peers who do not turn up include a ‘name and shame’ league table of non-attendant peers” [Project Homer, draft document]
The proposals raise further concern over the manner in which the Australian political strategist and election guru had found his way informally into the heart of government, whilst at the same time operating a flourishing commercial PR, private investigations and lobbying consultancy under the umbrella of his CT Group.
The revelation that his key colleague, Mark Fullbrooke, who only left CT Group in April, has been working for months on a rival leadership campaign to undermine the very government where Lynton Crosby was acting as a daily advisor to the prime minister will heighten the sense of unaccountability and poor governance as Johnson schemed to remove a major check on his power.
Contained in the document is another telling observation on the perceived advantages of achieving an obedient Lords. Planned legislation that had earlier suffered defeats but which could now be successfully returned to the Lords is listed as the Public Order Bill providing the police with new powers of arrest; a new Bill of Rights, making it easier to deport immigrants; an Elections Bill that would implement a requirement of Photo ID (thereby advantaging Tory voters) and a Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to make it easier to crack down on public protests. Also a:
Health Bill: which planned for a more laissez faire approach to tobacco manufacturers and importers was defeated by 59.
The CT Group and Sir Lynton Crosby have in the recent past lobbied government ministers on behalf of clients in the tobacco industry.
The purpose of the new Vetting Unit and ‘reformed’ Whip is laid out in Crosby’s paper, as being not only to profile new entries on the grounds of loyalty only, but to bring existing peers under control.
“A new system is needed to appoint new Tory peers. In recent years, too many individuals are offered Tory Peerage without any proper vetting as to whether they will attend and take the Tory Whip to loyally support the government – for instance in the cases Camilla Cavendish, Patience Wheatcroft and Andrew Tyrie.
The Whips Office operation should be reviewed to evaluate what training is given to Lords Whips and whether the right appointments are made to the office. Former Commons Chiefs Arbuthnot, Maclean or McLoughlin (now in the Lords) could lead that review.
Most importantly, a revamped Whips Office must profile every single Conservative and Crossbencher Peer:
- a) By attendance
- b) By rebellion according to policy area since 2010 so that a Whips strategy can be formed now in advance of the coming contentious Bill in the current Session especially regarding Brexit freedoms, Human Rights repeal and the NI protocol.”
The paper notes how earlier versions of the bills were defeated by small majorities and that ruthless management together with a thoroughly obedient phalanx of 39 new MPs should eradicate any future such problems. The Conservative leadership should also expand on the practice of retiring sick and inactive MPs initiated by Lord Burns to replace non-voters with supportive regular attendees in Parliament.
The Crosby document reserves special disdain and criticism for Baroness Evans whom it says should be replaced for running an email focused communications system rather than working the bars and holding drinks in her office like her predecessors. She is criticised for having “no man-management skills”.
“Why she is still in the Chamber is a mystery” one peer is quoted as saying. Another sneers “she is not a politician” and yet another that she doesn’t have “the people skills to get people over the line” and vote instead of going home.
The question now facing those competing to be Boris Johnson’s successor is whether they will be planning to adopt the same tactics? Most of the contenders have indicated they support most of the contentious legislation that Johnson was struggling to get through, so will they also support his methods and, if so, how will that be received by the House of Lords and the electorate at large?
Responding to questions put by ITN about the Project Homer dossier CT Global claimed the proposals were merely a “an early working copy of a discussion paper” drawn up for an unspecified “think tank” for a “small group of people”.
“Even in spite of this being simply a working draft of a discussion paper, it seems incongruous that ITV would be against making the House of Lords more representative of the UK people with under-representation of the north and Wales, as you state, or that those who accept peerages do so in the full knowledge and acceptance that they will commit fully and actively to their democratic role, and have no conflicts which would prevent them from doing so.” [Statement by CT Group to ITN]
The Prime Minister’s office has not sought to deny that it was aware of the document, responding “This is not a Government document and does not represent Government policy. Unsolicited advice is often received – and disregarded.”
This despite the clear recommendation of an urgent timetable to begin vetting the prospective new peers from the middle of this month to be appointed in time for the October sitting of Parliament.