Bring on the Goats: ‘Outsider’ ministers are a good idea: their peerages are otiose

By: Nat le Roux

The unexpected resurrection of David Cameron’s political career in the closing weeks of 2023 reopened a long-standing constitutional controversy. There is a convention that all government ministers must sit in either the Commons or the Lords, although in theory it has never been a requirement. Since the newly appointed Foreign Secretary did not sit as an MP, he was elevated to the Upper House; and because this needed to be done in short order, the appointment was apparently not subject to vetting by the House of Lords Appointments Commission in the usual way. Mr Cameron became Lord Cameron of Chipping N­orton, and a legislator for life, to enable him to serve in a government which may be in office for a matter of months only. 

Irrespective of its merits, this surprising appointment reignited media interest in an old debate. There is an understandable view that ministers – and Secretaries of State in particular – should be accountable to the elected chamber. At the same time, sitting MPs are a finite pool of talent, and it would be perverse if a Prime Minster was precluded from making the occasional ministerial appointment from outside their ranks. The convention that these exceptional individuals are automatically granted peerages may seem mildly ludicrous, but it is generally understood as a lesser evil. To appoint a minister who was a member of neither House would be constitutionally abhorrent because she would not be subject to parliamentary scrutiny or accountability; or that, at any rate, is the consensus view.

The observations of outsiders sometimes shine an interesting light on our peculiar constitutional arrangements. In early December, I met up for lunch with a German banker who takes a keen interest in UK politics. His reaction to the Cameron appointment was somewhere between incredulity and outrage, for what I assumed were the usual political reasons: this was the Prime Minister who so catastrophically mishandled the Brexit referendum; and his own foreign policy record was scarcely a distinguished one, as every Libyan knows. I was interested to learn that my companion had a different narrative in mind: the new Foreign Secretary’s advocacy work during his years in the political wilderness and his former close association with the financier Lex Greensill.   

The UK media covered the Greensill affair mainly as a story about political lobbying, with limited resonance outside the Westminster bubble. The German perspective is very different: the collapse of Greensill Bank in 2021 was a front-page scandal, with measurable adverse financial consequences for taxpayers and bank depositors.[1]   

Cameron allegedly made $10m from Greensill and in German eyes his peerage was additionally egregious, as my informant confirmed. It looked like a reward for disreputable association, and the argument that it was a constitutional necessity cut no ice with him. In his own country, some government ministers sit in the Bundestag, and some do not: there is no rule about it, and the issue is not a contentious one. This information gave me pause for thought. Germany is a mature and stable parliamentary democracy, where evidently the accountability of ministers does not depend on membership of the legislature. It seemed to follow that the current Westminster view might merely reflect the normative effect of accumulated practice, rather than any issue of principle. 

Most UK media commentary on ‘outsider’ ministers has sidestepped this wider question and focused on the particular concern that Lords ministers are not accountable to the Commons. (They are of course accountable to their own chamber, albeit an unelected one). Lord Mandelson’s appointment as Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) in 2008 sparked a resurgence of interest in the issue. In response, a report of the Business and Enterprise Select Committee suggested that such Ministers should in future be allowed to appear at the Despatch Box.[2] While recognising that many MPs might regard this notion with instinctive dislike, the report pointed out that peers had appeared before the Commons as witnesses in the past, and that earlier editions of Erskine May provided a procedure in which Lords were seated within the bar of the House. There are also nineteenth century precedents for peers addressing the House directly (Lord Melville in 1805 and the Duke of Wellington in 1814). 

A 2010 report of the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) also considered the issue, concluding that there was a “strong argument” in favour of Lords ministers being directly accountable to the elected chamber.[3] In the same year, the House of Commons Procedure Committee advocated an experiment (never implemented) in which, for one parliamentary session only, departmental secretaries of state sitting in the Lords should be questioned in the Commons: the sessions would take place in Westminster Hall and would complement rather than replace the regular departmental question times.[4]

These reports make clear that there is no constitutional or procedural reason why Lords ministers should not be accountable to the whole House of Commons. At the same time, peers commonly appear as witnesses before Select Committees, and this is not regarded as contentious. It seems to follow that ‘outsider’ ministers can equally be accountable to elected representatives without being members of the Upper House. PASC reached the same conclusion, and raised the possibility that a small number of junior ministers could be appointed without requiring them to be members of either House, while acknowledging that this would be “a considerable constitutional innovation.”[5]

There is no evident reason why such an innovation should be restricted to a few junior ministers only. In 2007, Gordon Brown appointed a clutch of ministers with distinguished backgrounds in other walks of life (the so-called Goats). All received peerages, and the initiative was generally viewed as a success, at least in the short term, because it brought some able people into government. But while these ministerial appointments were finite, the peerages were not, and the Goats became legislators for life. The 2010 PASC report suggested that ministers appointed to the House of Lords should be required to resign their seats after they leave government.[6] There is logic in this proposal, but it begs an obvious question: is it actually necessary to create these peerages-of-convenience in the first place? 

There is near-universal agreement that the House of Lords is far too large, with a current sitting membership of almost 800. Recent media attention has understandably focussed on egregious appointments of political donors, party hacks and cronies, but nor is there any obvious merit in creating surplus peers simply to allow them to serve in a particular government. It is transparently a device which further undermines the already damaged reputation of the Upper House. 

It would be a bold innovation for a Prime Minister to appoint an ‘outsider’ minister who was not simultaneously elevated to the peerage, and would no doubt arouse hostile commentary. Subsequent appointments would be progressively less controversial, and cultural norms would quite rapidly adjust to the new reality. Within the lifetime of two or three parliaments, it would be unexceptional for an administration to contain a modest admixture of ‘outsiders’, with some obvious benefits for the conduct of government and political life in general. 

The questionable quality of many recent ministerial appointees reflects an obvious reality: they are drawn from a tiny talent pool, restricted to the 350 MPs who currently sit on the government benches. Aspiring politicians make it to the Commons primarily because they possess the peculiar skillset required to negotiate party selection processes, as Rory Stewart amusingly confirms in his recent book.[7]  Those are not qualities which necessarily make for good ministers. 

At the same time, the practice of appointing the great majority of ministers from the ranks of sitting MPs corrodes the ability of the Commons to function as an effective legislature. Irrespective of talent or suitability, we can safely assume that most aspiring MPs are motivated by the eventual prospect of ministerial office far more than the dubious attractions of life on the backbenches. And once elected, an ambitious MP is overwhelmingly interested in keeping her seat, because without it she cannot be a minister. In consequence, most MPs are ineffective parliamentarians, especially on the government benches. Challenging poorly drafted legislation is not a career-enhancing strategy, and the constituency postbag will always take priority over informed engagement in Commons business. 

According to the Institute for Government, the current payroll vote consists of between 150 and 160 MPs: i.e. between 40% and 50% of all MPs in the governing party. That is very high by historic standards, and mirrored by shadow appointments on the opposition benches. The pool of backbenchers available to sit on Select Committees is consequently diminished. The routine appointment of Ministers from outside would correct the imbalance, with a beneficial impact on the conduct of Commons business and the quality of debate.  

From the Prime Minister’s perspective, shrinking the payroll vote would result in some loss of control over the parliamentary party, although it would arguably be of rather minor consequence: the prospect of ministerial office is sufficient to keep most ambitious backbenchers on the right side of the whips.[8] At the same time, the ability to appoint outsider ministers of proven ability has obvious political attractions. It may be argued that the routine appointment of ‘outsiders’ would further undermine the doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility and accelerate the current trend towards ‘presidentialism’ in the conduct of government. In my view, that particular horse has already bolted:  it could equally be argued that a cohort of distinguished ‘outsider’ ministers, not dependent on political patronage for their future careers, would make for more robust debate in Cabinet. Regularising such appointments would assist better government and improve the functioning of the Commons, besides modestly relieving the inexorable upward trend in the number of peers.     

Nat le Roux.

Nat le Roux co-founded The Constitution Society in 2009 and remains Senior Advisor to the Society. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.

[1] Greensill Bank (formerly NordFinanz) was a German commercial bank owned by Greensill Capital, a UK-based provider of supply chain finance. The bank’s insolvency in 2021 wiped out the deposits of many German municipalities. Individual depositors were protected by the Federal deposit insurance schemes, which paid out c EUR3bn in compensation. In response, the Association of German Banks has drastically reduced the maximum level of deposit protection available to individuals in future.

[2] Business and Enterprise Committee, Departmental Annual Report and Scrutiny of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, 25 November 2008, HC 1116.

[3] Public Administration Select Committee, Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament, 11 March 2010, HC 330.

[4] Procedure Committee, Oral questions to Secretaries of State; Committee for Privileges and Standing Order 78; Personal Bills Committee, 9 December 2009, HL 13.

[5] Public Administration Select Committee, Goats and Tsars: Ministerial and other appointments from outside Parliament, 11 March 2010, HC 330.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Stewart R (2023), Politics on the Edge, Ch 3Jonathan Cape.  

[8] Stewart ibid. pp 127-128. When the author defied the whip over the House of Lords Reform Bill (2012), George Osborne privately warned him of the consequences: ‘If you walk through that door [the ‘no’ lobby] will be a backbencher for at least five years.’