The prime minister was urged to block honours for No 10 “cronies” after a leaked list revealed that her predecessor has requested knighthoods for party donors, pro-EU campaigners and political aides.
Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians called for an overhaul of the system as it emerged that one of Cameron’s last acts in office was to propose rewards for more than 40 allies, many of whom were influential in the failed campaign to remain in the EU.
Tom Watson, the deputy Labour leader, led calls for the resignation list to be abolished completely on Monday, saying honours should be reserved for those who have contributed unprecedented public service.
“Giving knighthoods to MPs in the manner he has proposed, giving honours to stylists or special advisers to pay political debts undermines the honours system. We need to stop that,” he told the BBC’s World at One.
“Theresa May has it in her power to stop this list and we are calling on her today to do that … There’s no precedent here. This is about judgment and using the power you have.
“She is in charge now. She can stop this if she wants to. What Downing Street are actually saying is that they have chosen to let David Cameron’s crony list through. It will be her list, not David Cameron’s list, and she should be held to account for it.”
Asked about honours given to some Labour advisers in the past, Watson said he did not agree with, for example, the peerage given to Ed Miliband’s former adviser, Spencer Livermore, just after the party lost the last general election.
May was dragged into the row after it emerged that she would have to recommend the names put forward by Cameron to the Queen and therefore has the power to block them.
Her official spokeswoman said: “It is standard for an outgoing prime minister to submit a resignation list. Nominations for that list are at the former prime minister’s discretion, and they will now go through all the proper processes and committees.
“It would set a very bad precedent for a new prime minister to interfere in that process, which is long established.”
She dismissed the idea of a review of the honours list, saying the government was focusing on its priorities, and would give no comment on May’s personal reaction to the names put forward by the last prime minister.
The spokeswoman also would not be drawn on whether current members of the cabinet – Philip Hammond, Michael Fallon, David Lidington and Patrick McLoughlin – had been directed by May to turn down their honours, after sources told the BBC that they were not being put forward after all.
In his first comments on the furore, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, signalled that he would like a review of the honours system, saying sitting politicians should not get them.
“David Cameron seems to have found a lot of mates that he wants to reward,” he said. “I’m sure he’s got a lot of mates that need rewarding.
“I want to see an honours system that’s fair, is more democratic, and people can nominate to it. I do not believe in honours for politicians who are in office, because I think to be in office, to be elected to parliament, or council or anywhere else, is honour in itself.”
On the issues of nominations from him as opposition leader, Corbyn said he had asked Labour’s national executive committee “to think about how we would approach this in the future”.
He said: “I do recognise there are people who work incredibly hard in our society in all sorts of different ways,” pointing to community and volunteer groups.
Some Conservatives joined criticism of a number of the proposed appointments. Tania Mathias, a Tory MP, said: “If my non-political friends have to ask why somebody gets an honour that makes me nervous.
“And the contrast is when people in the community have had honours, nobody ever asks why – it’s usually” ‘Wow, how amazing and well-deserved’. So that part of the honours system I would want to keep because it’s so precious.”
The Twickenham MP added: “The contrast is this questioning that is coming up today and that makes me sad for politics.”
However, the nominations were defended by Desmond Swayne, a former international development minister who also served as a parliamentary aide to Cameron, who argued it was normal to repay those who have helped the prime minister in his job.
“Over a period of government, particularly a difficult government in a coalition, a prime minister has to cajole and get the support of a number of people and he builds up a debt of honour and I think that frankly, an honours list is a relatively light way of paying it off,” Swayne told the Westminster Hour on BBC Radio 4.
“I think we get far too excited about these things. The reality is with any honours list there are names that will warm our hearts and names that will send us into an apoplectic rage.”
The list, leaked to the Sunday Times, is particularly controversial because it proposes rewarding a string of people who helped Cameron’s failed bid to keep Britain in the EU.
One of the most contentious proposed knighthoods is for Ian Taylor, an oil executive who gave almost £1m to the Conservatives in the past 18 months and helped fund the campaigns against Scottish independence and in favour of the EU. Andrew Cook, an engineering businessman who donated the use of a private jet to Cameron before the 2010 election and gave about £250,000 to the remain campaign, was also put forward for a knighthood.
According to the leak, Cameron recommended awards for more than 20 Downing Street advisers and staff as well as knighthoods for the four pro-EU cabinet ministers. George Osborne, Cameron’s closest political friend, who lost his job as chancellor after helping to run the unsuccessful remain campaign, was put forward to become a companion of honour.
There was also criticism over a proposed CBE for Will Straw, the chief executive of the cross-party pro-EU campaign, who is the son of the former home secretary Jack Straw and a former Labour parliamentary candidate.
It is said to include proposed OBEs for the Downing Street aide Isabel Spearman – a former PR for a luxury handbag designer who assisted Samantha Cameron with her diary, official parties and outfits for engagements – and for Osborne’s aide Thea Rogers, an ex-BBC producer.
The list, leaked in an unprecedented breach of secrecy, comes on top of a separate slate of those recommended for peerages, which is tipped to include two longstanding former aides, Gabby Bertin and Liz Sugg.
Cameron started as Conservative leader by saying he wanted to clean up politics, but Guardian research has found he handed peerages to at least 13 major Tory party donors during his tenure, as well as a number of knighthoods and lesser honours.
This article was written by Rowena Mason and Peter Walker, for theguardian.com on Monday 1st August 2016 16.31 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010