The concept of collective ministerial responsibility
Collective ministerial responsibility is the convention that ministers must support all decisions of the government in public. It means that they are responsible as a group to Parliament and thus to the people, and that discussions in Cabinet should be confidential. If defeated in a vote of no confidence in the Commons, the government as a whole resigns. The practice is designed to maintain the unity of the government in face of attacks by the opposition. While ministers are free to argue their case with each other in private, once a decision has been reached it is binding on them all. If a minister cannot accept such a decision, in theory he or she should resign. One of the best-known examples of such a resignation in recent times was that of Robin Cook, leader of the House of Commons, in 2003 in opposition to the Blair government's decision to go to war with Iraq. He stated that he could not 'accept collective responsibility for the decision to commit Britain now to military action in Iraq without international agreement or domestic support'.
Clear-cut resignations on grounds of disagreement with government policy are quite rare in practice. To take such a step may well end a political career. It is more common for ministers who are unhappy with government policy to grumble from within, or 'leak' their dissatisfaction to the media, rather than take a public stand. Not all resignations are purely concerned with matters of principle but may be complicated by personality clashes and ambitions.
Exceptions to collective responsibility
There have been occasions when collective responsibility has been modified for political reasons. A notable example was the need to find a compromise between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in order to form a coalition government in 2010. There were four issues on which,
it was agreed at the outset, Liberal Democrat ministers would not be bound by collective responsibility. These were areas where they were most likely to come into conflict with the views of their Conservative partners. Liberal Democrats were allowed to abstain in votes on the construction of new nuclear power stations, tax allowances for married couples and higher education funding; and to propose an alternative to the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent. There were other instances, during the lifetime of the government, where members of the two parties took opposing standpoints. One example was the 2011 referendum on the Westminster electoral system, in which
David Cameron defended first past the post, while Nick Clegg campaigned for the alternative vote.
Since 1945 it has proved necessary to suspend collective responsibility on two occasions, during both referendum campaigns on the troubled issue of Britain's membership of the European Union. In 1975 Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson recognised that, in order to prevent resignations
by anti-Europeans, he had to allow ministers to campaign on both sides of the argument. The understanding was that, having been allowed to argue their cases in public, they would then unite behind the people's verdict. Labour ministers were allowed to share platforms at public meetings with members of other parties who shared their views. The only condition was that, as the official government position was to remain in Europe, opponents could not speak against membership from the despatch box in the House of Commons. Industry Minister Eric Heffer was sacked for breaking this rule.
In the spring of 2016 David Cameron, faced with an equally divided Conservative Party, reluctantly agreed to suspend collective responsibility on the European issue. The ensuing referendum
was more bitterly fought than the 1975 campaign, with five anti-EU Cabinet ministers joined by the charismatic former London Mayor, Boris Johnson, in attacking the terms on which Cameron proposed to continue British membership. Unlike Wilson four decades earlier, Cameron took personal charge of the 'Remain' campaign and, when his side lost the vote in June 2016, had no real alternative but to resign as prime minister.