Ministers Who Don't Resign

Prompted by a desperate tweet for examples of ministers who should have resigned on the basis of Individual Ministerial Responsibility but didn't, here are a few thoughts.

It really is increasingly rare for ministers to be brought to book over specific issues connected with their job. Plenty of ministers might resign due to non-job related problems: sex scandals, for example, which took David Mellor in John Major's government; or abuse of office - see David Blunkett and Peter Mandelson, who both resigned twice for different reasons - well worth googling them; or health reasons (Mo Mowlam in 2000). Ministers do also resign over differences with policy (i.e. they cannot maintain Collective Responsibility) - Robin Cook resigning as Leader of the Commons over Iraq is a good case, or James Purnell resigning as Work and Pensions Secretary because he believed Gordon Brown should stand down as Prime Minister. However, the responsibility of modern ministers is so wide that it is becoming unrealistic to bring them to book for single errors. Examples of where this has been tried are:

- Michael Howard in 1997. As Home Secretary, he was responsible for prisons policy, and faced criticism over a spate of prison escapes. Howard blamed the Prisons Service, and sacked its head Derek Lewis. Howard sought to distinguish between his 'policy' responsibility (which he claimed was intact) and the 'administrative' responsibility (which had failed and was the Prison Service Director's purview). This issue was famously the cause of an infamous television interview with Jeremy Paxman, in which Paxman asked Howard the same question 14 times.

- Stephen Byers came under pressure to resign as Transport Secretary following his decision to force Railtrack into administration, and over increasingly bad publicity about the way he was running transport policy, including allegations that he lied to parliament about such issues as rail safety. Eventually, Mr. Byers did in fact resign in May 2002, but it had looked as if he was trying to hang onto his job despite the problems over his leadership of the transport department.

- Defence Minister Quentin Davies faced calls to resign after his claims that the SAS were happy with their equipment were brought under scrutiny as the result of contrary evidence given to a parliamentary committee (2008).

- Education Secretary Ruth Kelly refused to resign after her department was said to have endorsed the application of a sex offender to stay teaching in schools (2005).

Two recent examples of ministers under pressure over policy issues don't quite fit the bill.

Caroline Spelman's handling of the Forestry Commission privatisation was strongly criticised, but she changed her policy, under pressure from No. 10. Andrew Lansley remains under pressure over his NHS reform proposals, but these are 'consultations' which again may be changed. Both of these examples are related in any case to policies which are widely disliked, rather than administrative incompetence, which is what the doctrine of Ministerial Responsibility is meant to cover.

The best recent example - and it's not that recent - of the doctrine in practise remains Lord Carrington, resigning as Foreign Secretary in 1982 (along with his whole ministerial team) because of the Argentine invasion of the Falklands, for which he took responsibility.

Estelle Morris resigned as Education Secretary in 2002 after a series of criticisms over the way she was handling the brief, admitting that she felt she was not up to the job. A rare burst of honesty that was greeted with warm applause by civil servants in her department.

All of the above examples can be googled for details.


Ross said…
There's quite an interesting difference that makes me laugh, and that's that when it's the Tories, it's "Tory Sleaze!" but when it's Labour, it's a "personal crisis".

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