Collective Responsibility

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.

Boris Johnson, foreign secretary, 2018

Having been an unenthusiastic supporter of Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations, Boris Johnson finally resigned when he decided that he could not publicly support her Chequers Agreement as the basis for an EU withdrawal agreement. His ministerial letter of resignation provides a classic statement of the meaning of collective ministerial responsibility.

‘On Friday I acknowledged that my side of the argument were too few to prevail and congratulated you on at least reaching a cabinet decision on the way forward. As I said then, the government now has a song to sing. The trouble is that I have practised the words over the weekend and find that they stick in the throat. We must have collective responsibility. Since I cannot in all conscience champion these proposals, I have sadly concluded that I must go’.

Boris Johnson, resignation letter, 9 July 2018

However being at odds with cabinet decisions and breaking the convention does not always lead tpo a resignation. Foe example in the 2 years before Boris Johnson resigned from May’s government in 2018, his criticisms of the government’s developing EU policy had been notably hostile. When, for example, the prime minister said she favoured a customs partnership with the EU, Johnson told the Daily Mail that the plan was ‘totally untried and would make it very, very difficult to do free trade deals’. He also argued in The Sun that there should be ‘no monkeying around’ over withdrawal from the EU. May, however, refused to sack him as foreign secretary, claiming that she preferred not to have ‘a cabinet of yes men’. This illustrates the limits of a PMs power to hire and fire- since May could not afford to have Johnson outside the cabinet where he would be an even greater threat.

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Sajid Javid, health secretary, 2022

Criticisms of Boris Johnson’s style of leadership came to a head when his deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher, resigned over allegations that he had sexually assaulted two men. When it became clear that Johnson had been aware of previous complaints made against Pincher, Sunak and Javid resigned within minutes of each other. Sunak’s resignation letter focused on economic policy differences with the prime minister: ‘In preparation for our proposed joint speech on the economy next week, it has become clear to me that our approaches are fundamentally too different.’ In contrast, Javid focused on what he called the prime minister’s lack of ‘integrity’ and failure to instil ‘strong values’. Fatally damaged, Johnson announced his resignation 2 days later.