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Frequent leaks from government illustrate importance of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility

Mike McCartney

21st January 2021

And this suggests that the convention is not necessarily a constitutional fiction, as some critics suggest

A bit of background.

Collective ministerial responsibility (CMR) is a convention that can be described as the glue which holds government together.

It is convention that all ministers publicly support decisions of the government (even if they disagree in private) or its committees or resign.

Over the last 50 years or so, around 30 senior ministers have exited the government on the grounds of collective responsibility.

A very high profile instance was the dramatic resignation of Michael Heseltine over the Westland affair in 1986. Other significant, and almost as dramatic, resignations would be the occasions when Robin Cook and Clare Short left the government over the Iraq invasion.

There is quite a good explainer here from the Institute for Government: https://www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk/explainers/collective-responsibility

Which brings us to this story from just before Christmas. As the Guardian reports:

“Andrew Lewer, a Home Office parliamentary private secretary, was fired from his junior government role when a letter urging the recipients not to leak information to the press found its way into the hands of the Guido Fawkes website.”

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/dec/18/ministerial-aide-sacked-after-leaking-of-letter-warning-mps-not-to-leak-to-media-andrew-lewer

And as Heather Stewart comments in the same paper: “After the ‘ill-discipline’ of May’s cabinet, some old habits in politics seem hard to break.”

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/dec/18/boris-johnson-leak-free-regime

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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