Last night, the House of Lords formally expressed regret at Baroness Stowell of Beeston’s demotion. During the course of the debate, peers made it clear that they deeply resented David Cameron’s decision to reduce her status and her salary.
Peers didn’t seem to lend much credence to Cameron’s claim that his hands were tied by the Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975. Although schedule 1, Part V, paragraph (1) of the Act sets out the maximum number of people who can be paid at each level, the Prime Minister determines who gets to be inside those magic circles. In other words, if Cameron really wanted Baroness Stowell to receive a Cabinet salary, she would receive a Cabinet salary. I agree with Baroness Boothroyd that it’s odd that the Secretary of State for International Development gets to stay in the Cabinet while the Leader of the Lords has to leave. Foreign aid is important, but I don’t see why the minister in charge needs to be a full member of the Cabinet.
But even if Cameron is right and it was impossible to pay Baroness Stowell a Cabinet salary for whatever reason, that doesn’t explain why he demoted her from the Cabinet. As Lord Norton of Louth pointed out over at Lords of the Blog, it’s possible for someone to be part of the Cabinet even if they aren’t paid a Cabinet salary. The fact that Cameron still shunted her off to the fringes of the Cabinet suggests that it was a deliberate move rather than an oversight.
Peers also castigated Cameron for the ill-conceived idea that Baroness Stowell’s salary should be “topped-up” to Cabinet-level by funds from the Conservative Party. She wisely turned down this suggestion, but the fact that it was mooted in the first place beggars belief. To quote Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, “[i]t was also totally inappropriate for a Minister who had accountability to the Crown rather than to the Prime Minister, either as the Chancellor of the Duchy or as Lord Privy Seal, to receive part of their salary from any political party.1”
I think it’s interesting that hardly anyone defended Cameron during the debate (except for Baroness Stowell, who had to respond on behalf of the government). Even Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, who argued that Baroness Stowell could still effectively represent the House of Lords in Cabinet, condemned what he saw as the diminution of the Lords’ status.
Although the Lords’ motion does not bind the government, Cameron would be well advised to figure out a way to draw a line under this affair. Even if Baroness Stowell can’t be paid a Cabinet salary, she should at least be made a full member of the Cabinet. That won’t solve the problem, but it would be a step in the right direction.