In the News

When do Ministers Resign?

Mike McCartney

11th October 2020

Where does ministerial responsibility lie with the current Education Secretary?

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.

But going back to role responsibility it should be stressed that ministers are expected to be responsible for everything under their aegis, and effectively they are expected to voluntarily exit their government department whether they are personally and directly responsible for a policy or administration error. Resignations that fall under this penumbra do occur. Occasionally. A classic example is the famous Crichel Down affair of 1954 when the Agriculture Minister, Sir Thomas Dugdale, resigned because of departmental maladministration of which he knew nothing about. But ministers tend to resist by arguing that it is not an error of policy, but they way subordinates carry out policy. Here we can think of Michael Howard as Home Secretary in the 1990s blaming the escape of high profile IRA prisons from British jails on the then head of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis. This led to one of the most famous political interviews of all time. The 'funny' short version is here

It goes on:

"Since schools closed in March, it has been obvious that pupils who were then in the first year of two-year exam courses (years 10 and 12) faced potentially damaging consequences. Yet the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has still not clarified how next summer’s exams will be changed to take account of learning missed, or what happens if the pandemic stops them from taking place – although an announcement about contingency plans is expected. Clearly, the postponement of exams by three weeks cannot make up for a term (or more) of missed classes. Nor does the funding allocated to “catch-up” tutoring in England provide an answer.

What makes the government’s silence all the more deafening is that there is no shortage of suggestions."

The full article is here:

Readers can decide whether Williamson and/or ministers should have walked the plank during the summer. And there is a related issue, therefore, about whether sackings by the Prime Minister should have taken place. But what is certain is that it leads us to question the vague nature of the convention of ministerial responsibility.

Topic tasks

  • Define what is meant by ministerial responsibility
  • Research further the case of Gavin Williamson and in addition the case for and against Priti Patel
  • Discuss whether the doctrine of ministerial responsibility is still an important element of the British constitution

Mike McCartney

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

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