Collective Cabinet Responsibility is the convention that Ministers agree on policy, and defend that policy in public thereafter. If a minister dissents openly, he must resign, or will be sacked. Thus, for example, two Lib Dem junior ministers resigned in 2010 rather than support the government policy increasing university tuition fees but the five Cabinet ministers supported it and kept their offices.
As part of this, the whole government is accountable for its actions and will resign and submit to a General Election if defeated in a vote of confidence in the House of Commons. This happened to Jim Callaghan’s Labour government in 1979.
Collective Cabinet Responsibility can be formally suspended by the PM, though this is rare. Harold Wilson did it in 1975, allowing ministers to campaign on different sides in the referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Economic Community. Gordon Brown allowed some leeway on the 2008 Embryology Bill, to accommodate Catholic ministers.
During the 2010-2015 Coalition, Collective Cabinet Responsibility didn’t apply to certain agreed issues, such as the referendum on the AV voting system in 2011, and some abstentions were tolerated.
Also Ministers can sometimes openly breach CR and get away with it…for a while. For instance, Ken Clarke and Theresa May made contradictory statements about what the UK should do about the Human Rights Act in 2010 and 2011. Nick Clegg was very critical of David Cameron’s policy at the EU summit in December 2011.
Ministers often covertly breach CR by leaking documents to newspapers. Prime Ministers often insist on ministers presenting a united front, while paying little regard to collective decision-making (see later).
Collective Cabinet Responsibility is seen by some as vital in the UK’s adversarial political system, where a divided cabinet will lose the respect of backbenchers who look to government for firm leadership, and where the opposition is always ready to exploit disunity.
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