David Cameron’s leaked resignation honours list is a “relatively light way of paying” off a “debt of support”, a former aide has said.
The list, which includes an OBE for Cameron’s wife’s stylist, has sparked a row over cronyism and prompted calls for a complete overhaul of the system.
The former PM is pushing to reward personal aides, political donors, and senior figures on the losing Remain campaign.
Sir Desmond Swayne, a one-time parliamentary aide to Cameron, told the BBC: “The reason we have a resignation honours list is because over a period of government, particularly difficult government in a coalition, a prime minister has to cajole and get the support of a number people and he builds up a debt of honour.
“I think that frankly an honours list is a relatively light way of paying it off. 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 New Forest West MP added that the lists contained people who “helped in particular way and deserve a little bit more of a thank you than their salary”.
Labour deputy leader Tom Watson said Cameron’s bid to reward his friends presented the worst of the “old boy’s network”.
The row was sparked by reports that Cameron had recommended knighthoods for four pro-EU cabinet colleagues, Philip Hammond, Michael Fallon, Patrick McLoughlin, and David Lidington.
Cameron also requested a companion of honour award for George Osborne, who was dismissed as chancellor by Prime Minister Theresa May, according to the Sunday Times.
Will Straw, head of the failed official pro-Remain campaign was proposed for a CBE, and more than 20 Downing St staff were recommended for awards, according to the report.
Among those reported to be recommended for OBEs is Isabel Spearman, who helped Samantha Cameron with her diary and outfits for various engagements.
It was also claimed Cameron recommended knighthoods for major Tory donors Ian Taylor and Andrew Cook.
Watson said: “I hope Theresa May is not going stake her reputation on David Cameron’s old boys network.
“That Mr Cameron proposes to reward his friends network on such a huge scale will not only bring the honours system into disrepute, it will undermine the reputation of the Theresa May.
“It’s cronyism, pure and simple and proof the Tories will always put their own interests before those of the country.”
Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith called for a total revamp of the system in light of the controversy.
“I’m disappointed that the former prime minister should use the system to slap his friends on the back,” Smith said.
Sir Alistair Graham, the former chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, told Sky News the list would “add a bit of a nasty, tawdry gloss” to Cameron’s failure to win the EU referendum.
Graham added: “I think it will be highly controversial.
“The sheer scale of the list slightly beggars belief. Also the range.”
Outgoing Ukip leader Nigel Farage tweeted: “David Cameron’s resignation honours list shows that it’s a good job he’s gone. Too many rewards for failure.”
Downing St declined to comment.