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Partygate: to resign or not resign?

Mike McCartney

14th April 2022

Party politics and the constitutionality of ministerial resignations

Much of the recent reaction to the partygate scandal and the decision by the Metropolitan Police to fine dozens of workers in Downing Street, including the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, in the British press has been viewed, and discussed, almost exclusively via the prism of party politics. So, on the one side we have members of the opposition parties, and the left wing press obsessively calling on the Johnson and Sunak to resign, while on the other we have MPs from the government party and the right wing press focusing on issues such as the fact that both No 10 and No 11 have apologised, events in Ukraine mean this is not the time for government to be in limbo while the mechanics of a leadership change grind on, and so forth.

As a parenthesis, it is interesting to note what historians have had to say about resignations when a country is on war footing - see this article form the i here.

So it is interesting to take a step back and look at international press coverage. The excellent Le Monde in English, rather than take sides on the 'should he, shouldn't he?' resign debate, merely present a cold overview of the facts.

Forbes magazine zeroes in on the fact that the PM is unlikely to resign, but on having been found guilty of breaking the law, there are important constitutional implications.

So what is the constitutional context? When should minister resign?

Textbook theory suggests that ministers are bound by the twin concepts of collective and individual ministerial responsibility (each with its own further strands).

Defining collective ministerial responsibility

  • Collective ministerial responsibility (CMR) is a convention that can be described as the glue which holds Cabinet government together. It is convention that all ministers publicly support decisions of Cabinet (even if they disagree in private) or its committees or resign, e.g. most famously, the dramatic resignation of Michael Heseltine over the Westland affair in 1986.
  • Under the penumbra of collective responsibility, convention dictates that the government should resign if defeated on a vote of confidence in the Commons, for instance James Callaghan called for a dissolution on 28 March 1979 following a defeat in the Commons shortly after the government’s devolution proposals were rejected by the Scots and Welsh.

Defining individual ministerial responsibility

A feature of parliamentary government is that the executive is drawn from the legislature and according to the constitution is directly answerable to it. The ministerial 'highway code' is laid out in the Ministerial Code, which issued to all ministers. The latest iteration can be found here: https://assets.publishing.serv...

Ministers are individually responsible for the work of their departments and are answerable to Parliament for all their departments activities

They are expected to accept responsibility for any failure in administration, any injustice to an individual or any aspect of policy which may be criticised in parliament, whether personally or not. A significant example would be Lord Carrington (Foreign Secretary) in 1982 for failing to take due note of warnings that Argentina was planning a Falklands invasion.

While we are here it should be note that by far the most common reason for ministers resigning are personal reasons (i.e. not directly connected to their ability to run a particular department). An example that springs to mind is Ron Davies as Welsh Secretary in October 1998, over his so-called 'moment of madness' on Clapham Common in South London.

The Guardian includes an excellent overview of the ministerial code, and its current significance here.

In terms of the constitution, students who have read this far will know that ministerial resignations is part of the UK governing architecture that we regard as a convention,* i.e. it has no legal basis. See this excellent report from the Institute for Government on the problems of the UK constitutional framework.

So where do we go from here? Given the ambiguity over the ministerial code, and the fact that the person responsible for overseeing whether a particular member of government has broken the code is the Prime Minister, it does seem unlikely that Boris Johnson will investigate himself. In terms of misleading statements to the House of Commons with regards to whether or not Johnson and Sunak had attended parties, there is an overhang in terms of there being an expectation that both will correct parliamentary records. See two excellent blog posts from the Institute for Government here: Partygate fine has not ended questions and misleading parliament.

So while this blog entry has attempted to focus on the penumbra of the governmental processes in relation to the recent, and unprecedented, fines issued to the two ministers at the apex of government, the question about whether either, or both, the PM and Chancellor manage to hold on to their jobs as a result of what has happened so far may be overtaken by events. This is because rumours continue to circulate that more fines are scheduled to be issued by the Met. Therefore, if partygate remains at the top of the new cycle, what a previous master of spin, Alastair Campbell, may or not have called the 'seven day rule', the 'ten day rule, or even the '11 day rule' and bad press doesn't fizzle out, then public pressure (the court of public opinion, trial by media, or whatever) may render the position untenable. In other words, in the end, everyone is expendable and party politics always trumps any questions of constitutionality.

*By the way, I think some posters on sources of the UK constitution are still available form the tutor2u shop here.

Questions

Explain briefly why there have been calls for Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to resign

Research the ministerial code, the rules covering ministerial resignations, and its place in the UK constitution

Discuss, using the material above, and your own knowledge, whether recent events strengthen the case for a codified constitution

Mike McCartney

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

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