In the News

Truss Cabinet split and collective responsibility

Mike McCartney

5th October 2022

In terms of A level examples, this government just keeps on giving

The Evening Standard has described the last 24 hours as a day of chaos.

Jack Kessler writes:

"Collective cabinet responsibility – the convention by which individual members of the government are held accountable for the actions of the government as a whole – lies at the heart of the British political system.

The convention, around since the 18th century, rests on two core principles. First, that ministers must be free to engage in debate behind closed doors before coming to a collective decision. And second, that once agreed in cabinet, all ministers, from the chancellor to the lowliest parliamentary private secretary, must abide by the position and vote with the government, or else resign."

For the purposes of our A Level Politics studies, a bit more on the constitutional context...

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). A personal favourite of mine is that of Ron Davies as Welsh Secretary in October 1998, over his so-called 'moment of madness' on Clapham Common in South London.

So, back to the article in the Standard, as Kessler writes:

"I regret to inform you that 29 days into the Liz Truss administration, collective cabinet responsibility has all but collapsed.

Where to start? Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House of Commons, said today that benefits should rise with inflation. She was subsequently joined by Welsh Secretary, Robert Buckland, and Work and Pensions Secretary, Chloe Smith, both of whom shared their reservations about a potential real-terms cut.

Things then got weirder on the issue of the 45p tax cut. Home Secretary Suella Braverman said she was “disappointed” by the U-turn, calling backbench discord a “coup”. Levelling Up Secretary Simon Clarke then quote tweeted Braverman’s comments, adding that “Suella speaks a lot of good sense, as usual“."

Source is here.

I don't think it's likely we will see any resignations as a result of these outbursts by senior ministers, which is further testament to the fact that in reality ministerial responsibility is something of a constitutional fiction.

Mike McCartney

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

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