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Should ministers suffer more than resignation?

Mike McCartney

6th March 2022

Gavin Williamson's knighthood raises interesting questions

This could be a good subject for a Politics Society debate.

A very gifted Politics student once asked me if the spectre of resignation (effectively, a sacking) was sufficient disincentive for an individual who might engage in a massive government blunder. After all, they would still most likely keep their MP salary, and changes are that they would pop in another ministerial post sometime (probably sooner than) later.

A reminder of what ministerial responsibility entails, as a constitutional convention.

I've posted quite a few entries about ministerial responsibility with regards to the current government.

And, so, a bit of background on what individual ministerial responsibility entails

  • 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 of conduct, which is issued to all ministers.
  • A personal mistake is by far the most common reason for ministers to resign, but some ministers weather the media storm better than others. In the 1990s it seemed like the Tories had set up a ministerial resignation production line (Mellor, Mates, Yeo, Brown, Hughes, Aitken), but after New Labour took office it quickly became apparent that being whiter than white was a promise that would be difficult to fulfil. In 1998 the Welsh Secretary, Ron Davies, resigned after a ‘moment of madness’ on Clapham Common. Under the Con-Lib coalition, Treasury Minister David Laws was first to fall on his sword following revelations about claiming housing expenses while sharing a house with his male partner.
  • It is very rare for a minister to resign as a result of an error of policy or administration, but we can point to the resignation of Estelle Morris over the A levels fiasco in 2002 as a precedent in the context of events in the Education Department (see previous blog posting in October 2020) over the past year.

And last week we heard that Gavin Williamson is to receive a knighthood. You can read about his blunders in full via the hyperlink later. But students will most likely remember his handling of the A Level results. As the Guardian summarise:

"A-levels fiasco

No one doubted that replacing exam marks with an alternative method of grading A-level students amid the Covid crisis in 2020 would be difficult. But Williamson was vilified, first for ignoring warnings that it would be a problem, and then, once the obviously unfair marks were in, for standing by the controversial combination of computer algorithm and teacher assessments. There was, inevitably, a U-turn 48 hours later, but by then much of the damage – both to students’ university chances and public confidence – had already been done."

Read about his other mistakes here:

Mike McCartney

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

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