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Johnson’s Mystery Peers: The Questions Charlotte Owen and Ross Kempsell Should Answer Over their New Peerages

What do you do to get a seat in the Lords?

Carrie Johnson with Charlotte Owen (right), watching as Boris Johnson formally resigned as Conservative Leader in July 2022. Photo: PA/Alamy

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When Boris Johnson allies Charlotte Owen and Ross Kempsell took their places in the House of Lords earlier this month, they secured their roles in Parliament to vote on our laws for life. Their parliamentary terms could last for more than 50 years. 

Questions have swirled around how 30-year-old junior No. 10 staffer Owen, and former Guido Fawkes reporter Kempsell, 31, managed to nab the cushiest seats in politics – with the entitlement to claim £323 tax-free per day of attendance for the rest of their lives. 

Byline Times has a few questions too. But first, let’s look at what Owen and Kempsell were doing before they became our newest and youngest peers.

Ross Kempsell and Charlotte Owen, two of Boris Johnson’s controversial appointments in his resignation honours. Photo: Parliament

Charlotte Owen: The Enigma

Charlotte Owen – Baroness Owen of Alderley Edge – began her career in Brussels, interning for Jacqueline Foster, then deputy leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament; before moving on to an internship at strategic communications consultancy Portland Communications in London. 

She soon moved back into the Conservative fold, as an assistant to liberal Tory MP William Wragg; before going on to become a special advisor to Boris Johnson – purportedly within the Number 10 Policy Unit.

Owen kept her SpAd role under Liz Truss’ fleeting premiership in September 2022, splitting her time between chief whip Wendy Morton MP and Truss. (Rishi Sunak did not retain her services when he became the UK’s third Prime Minister of 2022).

Part of the controversy surrounding Owen’s career history centres on allegations that she exaggerated both her positions and the duration of her time in Downing Street. Critics challenged her claim of working in the Policy Unit, and her LinkedIn profile appears to contradict official reports on how long she served as Johnson’s special advisor. 

All pretty academic, were it not for the fact that she has now taken a seat in the upper chamber. Owen has become the youngest member of the House of Lords and the youngest person ever to receive a life peerage. 

Critics argue that her appointment is difficult to justify given her relatively junior standing in the political landscape. Conservative sources told news outlet Tortoise that her appointment as a peer was “completely staggering” and “impossible to defend”. 

And yet, the criticism itself was met with accusations of sexism – given that Ross Kempsell is roughly the same age. Unlike Owen, he has largely avoided the spotlight following the announcement of his peerage. Social media has swirled with lurid – and often far-fetched – rumours as to why she got her seat.

While Owen is largely unreachable, with no public social media profiles or contact details save for her anonymous-seeming LinkedIn page, Kempsell’s anonymity as a former journalist is harder to justify.

Kempsell: The Johnson Mouthpiece

Ross Kempsell – Baron Kempsell of Letchworth – was praised for his journalism while doing his qualifications at News Associates a decade ago, landing front pages while still studying. 

But his most famous contribution to the profession before his leap into party politics is an interview with Boris Johnson while he was political editor at TalkRadio, ultimately owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International. 

At the height of the Conservative leadership campaign, that 2019 interview hit the headlines for its killer question: “What do you do to relax, what do you do to switch off?”

Johnson replied: “I like to paint things and make things… I make models of buses. No, I don’t make models of buses, I get old wooden crates and I paint them… I turn it into a bus, I put passengers in… I paint passengers enjoying themselves on a wonderful bus… low-carbon, reducing pollution.”

It was widely seen as a ‘softball’ interview – letting Johnson ramble to avoid awkward questions, as he does.

That interview was in June. In August 2019, it was announced that Kempsell had been appointed as a special advisor to Johnson in No. 10. He remained there until 2020, managing to squeeze in both a “brief return to the industry as a special correspondent at Times Radio” and “back to become a political director at Conservative campaign headquarters,” Politico reported.

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Things moved on after Johnson left Downing Street. The former Prime Minister became a backbench MP, under investigation. Kempsell, likely alongside his political director role at CCHQ, became Johnson’s media spokesman. The timelines are hazy as to when this began.

Last week, Politico noted that Kempsell – a friend of the Johnsons – remains the ousted ex-PM’s current press spokesperson. This has been confirmed by several other sources to still be the case. It is an unusual situation for someone to be appointed to the Lords who continues to work for the man who appointed them.

Sadly, both of Kempsell’s formerly-listed contact email addresses at TalkRadio and another personal address now respond with bounce-backs: they are no longer active. 

Kempsell’s Twitter account and contact details on his personal website appear to have been almost entirely scrubbed of any content. 

Questions, Questions…

Since Byline Times has not received a response to its questions from Charlotte Owen or Ross Kempsell, this newspaper will ask them here instead:

… for Ross Kempsell:

  1. Can you confirm you are still a spokesman or press contact for Boris Johnson?
  2. Were you a spokesman or press contact for Boris Johnson when he added you to his House of Lords list?
  3. Was this work remunerated? 
  4. Was there any consideration of potential conflicts of interests regarding working for Johnson, free or paid, and him appointing you to the House of Lords?
  5. Did you delete then reinstate your Twitter account? If so, why?
  6. Why has your website had its info including contact details removed? 

… And some for Charlotte Owen:

  1. What is your understanding of why you were appointed to the House of Lords?
  2. How do you respond to claims that you exaggerated your position and the length of time that you worked in 10 Downing Street?
  3. Did you ever work in the Policy Unit? If so, in what role?
  4. Did you work directly with Boris Johnson? What was your relationship with/to him? 
  5. You have stated that you were a special advisor from February 2021 to October 2022, but were not listed in the annual report on special advisers published in June 2021. Why is this? 
  6. What do you plan to do in the House of Lords – do you plan to be an active member? If so, on what issues? 

Neither figures have responded to requests for comment. Let’s see what they get up to in the Lords.

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