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The Conventions of Individual Ministerial Responsibility and Collective Cabinet Responsibility: A Note

Page last edited:13/11/2016

New Links added November 13th 2016. Click here for a page of links on the Premiership of Theresa May. There you will find articles on the construction of her Cabinet and articles on Cabinet tensions by Mark Mardell and Andrew Rawnsley may be particularly useful in relation to Collective Cabinet Responsibility

New links added March 19th 2016: click here and here for Guardian coverage, here for BBC coverage, here for Independent coverage and here for Observer coverage of resignation of Iain Duncan Smith . In the Guardian coverage there are further links to ITV coverage [by Robert Peston] and New Statesman coverage

New links added March 2016: click here for Guardian article and here for podcast by Steve Richards on Cabinet and the EU Referendum.

New link added February 2016:  click here for Guardian article and here for BBC article stating that  suspension of Collective Cabinet Responsibility during EU Referendum campaign is likely to be announced at Cabinet Meeting Friday February 19th  . In the event the meeting took place on Saturday February 20th. 

New links added January 2016: Click here for BBC item and here and here for Channel 4 items and here and here and here and here for Guardian articles and here and here for Independent articles on David Cameron's announcement of suspension of Collective Cabinet Responsibility during the EU Referendum Campaign

New link added June 2015: Click here for Guardian article on confusion around Collective Cabinet Responsibility and the EU Referendum

New link added June 2015. Click here for useful article on Coalition Government written January 2015 by Paul Fairclough

New Link added November 28th 2014 Click here for Ministerial Responsibility after Huhne: a very useful article by Dr. Mike Gordon

New Links added November 4th 2014. Click here {Independent] , here  and here {Guardian] and here and here  [BBC] for resignation of Lib Dem Home Office Minister Norman Baker on grounds that he believes Home Secretary Teresa May is neglecting Liberal Democrat approach to Home Office Policy

New Links added August 5th 2014 Click here for  the resignation  of Baroness Warsi on the grounds that she cannot support Coalition policy on the Israel-Gaza conflict

New Links April 9th 2014  Click here [Guardian], here [Independent] and here [BBC] for coverage of resignation of Culture Secretary Maria Miller. Click here for a BBC Q and A on Maria Miller's resignation . Click here for Radio 4 documentary [The Report] on Maria Miller's expenses . Click here and here for two very useful articles from the LSE Politics and Policy Blog 

NEW Links September 28th 2014: Click here  for BBC coverage and here for Observer coverage  of resignation of  Brooks Newmark from his position as Minister for Civil Society The Observer story also contains information of Conservative MP Mark Reckless' defection to UKIP. Click here for Guardian coverage a previous controversy involving Brooks Newmark 

 

A Series of links on the resignation of Andrew Mitchell and his loss, 2 years later, of the Libel Case in which he had again denied using the word "Pleb."

 [New Links December 19th Click here for Channel 4 coverage of further developments in the Andrew Mitchell case. including a very interesting video of journalist Michael Crick's investigation into the affair and click here for the BBC coverage and click here for ongoing Guardian coverage  to September 2013 and criticisms of the delays around the Metropolitan Police investigation. Click here  for further BBC coverage in October 2013. Click here for a BBC Timeline of the Andrew Mitchell affair to February 2014. Click here for regularly updated Guardian coverage of Andrew Mitchell.

  New Links January 21st 2013 Click here for BBC coverage and here for Guardian coverage of MPs' criticism of the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood in relation to his investigation of the Andrew Mitchell affair

New Links February 4th 2013 Click here for more information from Michael Crick on Channel 4 and here for more coverage from the Guardian

New links November 28th 2014 Click here for Guardian timeline of main events in the Andrew Mitchell Affair up to and including Andrew Mitchell's loss in libel case November 27th 2014, Click here for regularly updated Guardian coverage of Andrew Mitchell now updated to November 28th 2014. Click here for a BBC timeline and links to further items and here for Independent coverage of the libel case

 

 

New Links February 14th- 2013 November 2014  Click here for some links on Collective Cabinet Responsibility and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government

New Link December 2013 Click here for The Universal Credit Fiasco and the Need for a new Model of Ministerial Responsibility [From Democratic Audit

New Link December 2013 Click here for Guardian coverage of Tory claims that Vince Cable is undermining the convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility and here and here for further Guardian coverage of EU immigration and here for Independent coverage Danny Alexanderís criticisms of Conservative Euro-scepticism.

New Link February 2014. Click here for Guardian coverage and here for BBC coverage of resignation of Immigration Minister Mark Harper. A story which perhaps is not without some irony

New Link March 2014  Vince Cable and the Tories: Collective Cabinet Responsibility?  [From Huffington Post]

New Link March 2014  Click here for "In It Together: the Inside Story of the Coalition Government "  very significant Podcast Lecture from the LSE given by Matthew d' Ancona

New Link April 2014 Click here and here for resignation of ministerial aide Mark Menzies

New Links April 9th 2014  Click here [Guardian], here [Independent] and here [BBC] for coverage of resignation of Culture Secretary Maria Miller. Click here for a BBC Q and A on Maria Miller's resignation  

NEW Links August 5th 2014; Click here and here for the resignation of Baroness Warsi from her position as Foreign Office Minister on the grounds that she can no longer support Coalition policy on the Israel-Gaza conflict.

NEW Links September 28th 2014: Click here  for BBC coverage and here for Observer coverage  of resignation of  Brooks Newmark from his position as Minister for Civil Society The Observer story also contains information of Conservative MP Mark Reckless' defection to UKIP. Click here for Guardian coverage a previous controversy involving Brooks Newmark 

 

  •  The Convention of Individual Ministerial Responsibility

Click here for Individual Ministerial Responsibility: Issues and Examples [Commons Library Research Paper 5th April 2004

Click here for The Ministerial Code and a little information on the Prime Minister's Independent Adviser on Ministers' Interests Click here and here for a useful articles by Andrew Rawnsley and Patrick Wintour respectively on the Prime Minister's Independent Adviser on Minister' Interests. Click here for a Guardian article suggesting that David Cameron may have breached the Ministerial Code in relation to the Liam Fox/Adam Werrity links.

Under the terms of the Convention of Individual Ministerial Responsibility individual Ministers are deemed responsible to Parliament  for the policies and administration of their department  and for their own personal conduct. The Ministerial Code contains broad guide lines establishing appropriate ministerial behaviour which obviously provide ministers with useful advice regarding the performance of their ministerial duties but the Code is not a legal document and its precise implementation depends upon the interpretation s of the Prime Minister.

Individual Ministerial Responsibility means that Ministers introduce their departments' new legislation and explain and defend it in Parliamentary debates and that  that they speak in other parliamentary debates , answer oral and written Parliamentary Questions and appear before select committees on matters affecting their department. All of this helps to some extent to improve the accountability of the Executive to Parliament and , indirectly, to the electorate although the limitations of all of the above mechanisms of parliamentary scrutiny are well known.

The convention of Individual Ministerial Responsibility implies also that a Minister should resign if there have been serious policy and/or administrative errors in his/her department or if s/he has been guilty of serious personal misconduct. Examples of resignation over policy errors and personal misconduct respectively include the resignation of the Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington and two junior Foreign Office Ministers[ Humphrey Atkin and Richard Luce] for their apparent failure to predict the likely Argentinean invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982 and the resignation of Conservative Minister Cecil Parkinson in the mid 1980s following revelations of the details of an extra-marital affair with his secretary Sara Keays .

 More recently Peter Mandelson was obliged to resign twice from the Cabinet first for failure to reveal details of a personal loan and then for attempting to fast track an application for British citizenship from an influential business man... although he was later exonerated from any wrong doing in this latter case. Ministers may be obliged to resign if they are considered to have misled Parliament: David Willetts [Conservative] and  Beverly Hughes [Labour] were both obliged to resign for this reason. Click here and here for BBC coverage of Beverly Hughes resignation.

Click here and here for the resignation of Stephen Byers [2002] and here and here for the resignation of Estelle Morris [2002]

Click here and here for David Blunkett's resignation as Home Secretary in 2004 and here and here for his resignation as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions in 2005

 

 

Resignations of Cabinet Ministers 2010--

Click here and here for Guardian/Observer coverage of the resignation of the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws }

{Click here for the BBC coverage of the resignation of Defence Secretary Liam Fox }

Chris Huhne resigned as Secretary of State foe Energy and Climate Change on February 3rd 2012 after learning that he will be charged with perverting the course of justice as a result of allegations that in 2003 Mr. Huhne had committed a speeding offence but agreed with his then wife Ms. Vicky Price that she would admit to having been the driver of the speeding car and would accept the resultant penalty points on his behalf. Mr Huhne claims that is is innocent of all charges and states that he has resigned "in order to avoid distraction to either my official duties or my trial defence." The following links provide additional information.

Click here [BBC] and here [Guardian] for the resignation of Chris Huhne

Click here for a BBC assessment of Chris Huhneís career and here for a BBC assessment of the implications of Chris Huhneís resignation for the future of Coalition environmental policies. 

Click here for Guardian coverage of the controversy around allegations that Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell swore at a policeman on duty in Downing Street also allegedly calling him a "pleb" who " should know his place". He has subsequently denied using the word "pleb"  and apologised for his bad behaviour  and David Cameron has said that Mitchell will remain in his position but pressure for his resignation may be mounting [October 18th 2012] although David Cameron may continue to support Mitchell for fear of appearing "weak" if he now accedes to such pressures. New links November 28th 2014 Click here for Guardian timeline of main events in the Andrew Mitchell Affair up to and including Andrew Mitchell's loss in libel case November 27th 2014, Click here for regularly updated Guardian coverage of Andrew Mitchell now updated to November 28th 2014. Click here for a BBC timeline and links to further items and here for Independent coverage of the libel case

Andrew Mitchell's replacement as Chief Whip is Sir George Young

Click here for an Observer article by Andrew Rawnsley on Andrew Mitchell's resignation and comparisons with other non-resignations [Andrew Lansley, Jeremy Hunt, John Prescott?]

New Link December 19th Click here for Channel 4 coverage of further developments in the Andrew Mitchell case. including a very interesting video of journalist Michael Crick's investigation into the affair and click here for the BBC coverage and click here for Guardian coverage

New Link February 2014. Click here for Guardian coverage and here for BBC coverage of resignation of Immigration Minister Mark Harper. A story which perhaps is not without some irony

New Link April 2014 Click here and here for resignation of ministerial aide Mark Menzies

New Links April 9th 2014  Click here [Guardian], here [Independent] and here [BBC] for coverage of resignation of Culture Secretary Maria Miller. Click here for a BBC Q and A on Maria Miller's resignation  

NEW Links August 5th 2014; Click here and here for the resignation of Baroness Warsi from her position as Foreign Office Minister on the grounds that she can no longer support Coalition policy on the Israel-Gaza conflict.

 

 

 

In general terms there is considerable uncertainty surrounding the circumstances under which a Minister may be obliged to resign.

  1. There may be circumstances where policies have been poorly implemented at local level so that the Minister cannot reasonably be blamed for such failure as when in the early 1980s an intruder gained entrance to the Queen's bedroom suite and despite calls for the resignation of the then Home Secretary William Whitelaw he could reasonably claim that he was not ministerially responsible for this specific error.
  2. A Minister might claim that even though serious administrative mistakes have been made s/he should nevertheless remain as Minister and be allowed to rectify these mistakes. This was the claim made by Charles Clarke in 2006 in relation to administrative errors in the Home Office: he survived for a few weeks but when Mr Blair in a Cabinet reshuffle wished to move him from the Home Office to the Ministry of Defence Mr Clarke resigned rather than accept what he perceived to be a demotion.
  3. A Minister might argue that his /her policies have been discussed and agreed in Cabinet so that if there are policy errors the entire Cabinet is collectively responsible all of which suggests that the conventions of Individual Ministerial Responsibility and Collective Cabinet Responsibility are in some respects incompatible.
  4. The introduction of the so-called Next Steps Agencies which deliver public services but with relatively limited connections with Whitehall Departments blurs the responsibility for policy failure. For example in 1995 there were several significant prison escapes as a result of which the then Home Secretary Michael Howard faced calls for his resignation but instead shifted blame onto Derek Lewis , the Chief Executive of the Prison Service, claiming that the mistakes occurred to as a result of policy failure but as a result of failures of operational management for which Mr Lewis was responsible, a view which was widely questioned at the time.
  5. Attitudes toward Ministers' personal relationships may well have changed in recent years: the former  Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and the former Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott were not obliged to resign when details of their extra-marital affairs became public.
  6. Ministers have been obliged to resign if they are considered to have behaved in any respects improperly. This applied to Coalition Ministers David Laws, Liam Fox , Chris Huhne, Andrew Mitchell  and Maria Millar .
  7. An important general point is that if an individual Minister has the support of the PM and the rest of the Cabinet s/he may be able to survive calls for resignation under the terms of the Individual Ministerial Responsibility Convention. A Prime Minister may appear weak if s/he seems to be giving in to political pressure to dismiss a minister but sometimes a PM may be forced to do this: Tony Blair would have liked to save David Blunkett from resignation but felt unable to do so.

 

  • The Convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility

New link added June 2015: Click here for Guardian article on confusion around Collective Cabinet Responsibility and the EU Referendum

New links added January 2016: Click here for BBC item and here and here for Channel 4 items and here and here  and here and here   for Guardian articles and here and here for Independent articleson David Cameron's announcement of suspension of Collective Cabinet Responsibility during the EU Referendum Campaign

The Convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility was originally designed to enable the cabinet to present an image of unity in Parliament and in public. This Convention has the following implications.

  1. Once decisions are taken in Cabinet and in Cabinet Committees all Ministers must support these decisions in public ,even if they were not present when the decisions were taken, and, if they cannot do so, they should resign. The Convention applies not only to Cabinet Ministers, but to more junior  non-Cabinet Ministers and to MPs [known as Parliamentary Private Secretaries] who are assistants to Ministers .
  2. All details of Cabinet discussions should be kept secret unless it is agreed that it can be made public. This is designed to promote full discussion without revealing evidence of Cabinet disunity and to  prevent sensitive information from being made public.
  3. A government which is defeated on a Vote of Confidence must resign since such a vote signals no confidence in the government collectively not in an individual minister. Notice that the Cameron-Clegg government hopes to introduce a new provision whereby a 55% Commons majority will be necessary to defeat the government on a vote of confidence.

Important examples of resignations which occurred because Ministers could not accept Collective Cabinet Responsibility for policies with which they disagreed include the following.

  1. 1986: Michael Heseltine refused to accept government policy on the Westland helicopter affair.
  2. 1989: Nigel Lawson refused to accept Mrs. Thatcher's interventions in the management of economic policy.
  3. 1990: Sir Geoffrey Howe refused to accept the Thatcher Government's stance on European policy.
  4. 2003 : Robin Cook and John Denham both resigned because they disagreed with government policies on Iraq. Clare Short remained briefly in Cabinet despite publicly disagreeing with the Government policy on Iraq but she too soon resigned.

Nevertheless it must be noted that the Convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility has not always been applied rigidly.

  1. It was suspended temporarily in 1975 when the Labour Government was disunited over continued membership of the then EEC [now the EU] and Labour Ministers were allowed to campaign for or against continued membership in the 1975 referendum campaign. The convention was relaxed also in the vote on the European Assembly Bill in 1977.
  2. Free votes are often allowed on conscience issues such as capital punishment, abortion and gay rights.
  3. Ministers and the PM often ignore the convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility by leaking their own policy preferences to the mass media.
    • Thus Mrs Thatcher sometimes encouraged her press spokesman Bernard Ingham to signal her disagreement with the more moderate members of the Cabinet and they certainly leaked their dissatisfaction with Mrs. Thatcher's more radical policies.
    • Mrs Thatcher's own failure to abide by the Convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility is another reason why her Cabinet eventually deserted her.
    • Such  problems intensified even more in John Major's Government when Eurosceptic Cabinet Ministers Michael Portillo , Michael Howard and John Redwood regularly leaked against Major's European policies but remained in Cabinet. was caught by a live microphone as he described the three Ministers as " bastards"
  4. Blair's Cabinets appeared more united in the early years but there have subsequently been leaks of the great disputes between Blair and Brown and also of disunity in the Brown Cabinet.
  5. We can only speculate about what problems may be involved in maintaining Collective Cabinet Responsibility in the current Coalition Government .

        It is easier to sustain the doctrine of collective cabinet responsibility in a united government but since all governments are to some extent plagued by disunity it is recognised that the convention of collective cabinet responsibility is to some extent a fiction : even if ministers claim that the government is united it is widely recognised that there are ongoing disputes at the heart of government.

Additions February 14th 2013- June 2015  Some Links on the Coalition and Collective Cabinet Responsibility.

It is important to note that the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government has had important implications for the Convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility. Thus in the Coalition Agreement for Stability and Reform [May 20th 2010] it was stated that "the Principle of Collective Responsibility , save where it is explicitly set aside continues to refer to all government ministers" You may click here for a Parliamentary Note on the Coalition and the Constitution  and and scroll down to Page 12 to see a list of issues in relation to which the Convention of Collective Responsibility was expected to be relaxed "to a greater or lesser extent"

It is argued that the activities of the so-called Quad Of D. Cameron, N, Clegg, G. Osborne and D. Alexander [apparently augmented recently by the addition of D. Laws and O. Letwin ] are designed to attempt to resolve tricky issues which could involve conflict between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats.  If their discussions are successful this could be a factor making for a more cohesive Government in which Ministers of both parties may feel able to support Government policy thus strengthening the operation of the convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility. Alternatively inter-party policy differences may increasingly prove too difficult to resolve. weakening the operation of the convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility.  Click here, here, here  and here for some further information on the Quad.

You may click here for  a video of an extended Parliamentary Debate on Collective Cabinet Responsibility posted on the BBC Democracy Channel .[I hope it is retained on the BBC site for a long time.] Click here for a verbatim transcript of this debate from the theyworkforyou site ,...again I hope the item will be retained for a long time

You may click here and here for Guardian items suggesting that David Cameron intended initially that  Ministers votes on gay marriage legislation would be bound by Collective Cabinet Responsibility but was obliged to change his mind in recognition of the extent of opposition to gay marriage among Conservative ministers and Conservative MPs more generally.

You may click here for a Guardian Report of the comments of the then Conservative Party Chairwoman Baroness Warsi on the failure of some Liberal Democrat Ministers to abide by the convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility.

You may click here for the Daily Telegraph coverage of the decision to set aside Collective Cabinet Responsibility over the recent issue of Boundary Reform on which the Conservatives were defeated as Liberal Democrats Ministers  voted with Labour against the Conservatives.

Click here for a New Statesman article entitled "Will Cameron suspend collective responsibility over the EU"?

You might like to discuss whether the  convention of Collective Cabinet Responsibility is likely increasingly to be weakened  as the next General Election approaches. Related to this you might find useful this article by Professor Vernon Bogdanor for the Guardian.

NEW Links August 5th 2014; Click here and here  and here  and here and here for the resignation of Baroness Warsi from her position as Foreign Office Minister on the grounds that she can no longer support Coalition policy on the Israel-Gaza conflict.

New Links added November 4th 2014. Click here {Independent] , here  and here {Guardian] and here and here  [BBC] for resignation of Lib Dem Home Office Minister Norman Baker on grounds that he believes Home Secretary Teresa May is neglecting Liberal Democrat approach to Home Office Policy

New link added June 2015: Click here for Guardian article on confusion around Collective Cabinet Responsibility and the EU Referendum

New links added January 2016: Click here for BBC item and here and here for Channel 4 items and here and here and here and here for Guardian articles and here and here for Independent articles on David Cameron's announcement of suspension of Collective Cabinet Responsibility during the EU Referendum Campaign

More Detailed Papers

  • Click here for The Coalitionising of Collective Responsibility [Dr. Felicity Matthews : published by PSA 2014]
  • Click here for The Collective Responsibility of Ministers [House of Commons  Research Paper 2004]