The conventions of Collective Responsibility (CMR) and Individual Ministerial Responsibility (IMR) are both meant to be important constitutional conventions that regulate how government operates. However, there is a significant debate as to whether these conventions are indeed significant today. This article will look to assess this issue.
What are CMR and IMR and what are the differences?
Whilst there are some similarities, CMR and IMR are different but are something that many students mix up in their examinations. So what is the difference between them?
IMR – Individual Ministerial Responsibility is a convention under which a Government Minister is expected to take responsibility for not just their own actions, but for all decisions made within their department.
CMR – Collective Ministerial Responsibility is the convention under which Government Ministers agree that Government decisions are taken collectively and should therefore be supported in public by all Ministers. This is an important part of Cabinet Government.
A breach, or planned breach, of either convention should lead to the resignation of any Minister.
Are IMR and CMR codified?
Traditionally both IMR and CMR were purely conventions. However, this began to develop from the 1980s onwards. They began to be codified in a Cabinet Office Document called the Questions of Procedure for Ministers. Subsequently, since 1997, what is now known as the Ministerial Code has been published. Its standards are largely based on a report by the Committee of Standards in Public Life (often called the Nolan Report). This report highlighted seven values that public servants should uphold: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership.
By convention each Prime Minister updates and publishes their own version of the Ministerial Code when they take up the office. The latest version was therefore published in 2019.
On the subject of the IMR and CMR the Ministerial Code says that:
- The principle of collective responsibility applies to all Government Ministers.
- Ministers have a duty to account, and be held to account, for all decisions and policies within their department.
- Ministers must not knowingly mislead Parliament and must correct the record immediately if they inadvertently mislead Parliament.
- Ministers should ensure there is no conflict between their public duties and private interests.
What are famous examples of IMR being enforced?
Lord Carrington – 1982
In April 1982 the Argentinian Armed Forces invaded the British Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. This had been an ongoing dispute and the Argentine Government had claimed sovereignty over the islands. However, despite the ongoing political dispute, the invasion of the islands took the British Government almost entirely by surprise. However, there had been warnings from a naval commander called Captain Nicholas Barker that an invasion was likely. Subsequently, Carrington resigned as Foreign Secretary.
Amber Rudd – 2018
In 2018 Amber Rudd was the Home Secretary when reports emerged that the children of the Windrush Generation were being threatened with deportation by the UK Government if they could not explicitly prove their right to stay in the UK. Further to this, it was reported that the Home Office had targets for the number of immigrants they would aim to remove from the UK. Amber Rudd claimed that there were not targets for deportations, but during scrutiny by the Home Affairs Select Committee other parties suggested that there were:
Following this, the Guardian Newspaper was given emails that suggested that Rudd had known about the targets for removal. Rudd denied this, saying that whilst the memo was copied to her, she had not read it. Irregardless, Rudd admitted to having ‘inadvertently misled the House of Commons’ and therefore resigned as Home Secretary.
Peter Mandelson – 1998 and 2001
Peter Mandelson was one of the triumvirate of individuals alongside Tony Blair and Gordon Brown responsible for the formation of New Labour. In 1998 he became Secretary of State for Trade. However, five months later he was forced to resign after it emerged that he had taken a loan from a fellow MP that he had not declared. Nonetheless, he returned to the Cabinet in 1999 as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In 2001, for the second time he was forced to resign a second time following accusations that he fast-tracked the passport application of an associate. Whilst both these cases involved personal failings, Mandelson was still obliged to resign under the Ministerial Code.
Estelle Morris – 2002
In 2002 Estelle Morris was the Education Secretary. She had made a commitment to oversee a rise in literacy levels but was not able to achieve this. Subsequently, she suddenly resigned following issues around A-Level marking by refreshingly admitting that she was just not up to the job.
What are famous examples of IMR seemingly being set aside?
Ministerial Code – “Harassing, bullying or other inappropriate or discriminating behaviour wherever it takes place is not consistent with the Ministerial Code and will not be tolerated.“
The Home Secretary Priti Patel was accused in 2020 of bullying civil servants, including by swearing at them and belittling them. The Permanent Secretary of the Home Office even resigned citing her behaviour. In November 2020 a Cabinet Office enquiry found that Patel “had not met the requirements of the ministerial code to treat civil servants with consideration and respect”. Boris Johnson, however, refused to ask for Patel’s resignation and she continues in position to this day. It is quite clear that the Cabinet Office report found clear evidence that Patel had been a bully. However, she is consistently found to be a popular member of the Conservative Party with its members. It would not have been in Boris Johnson’s political interest to remove her. Therefore, he ignored the requirements of his own ministerial code and did not remove her from office. Following this decision, the author of the report Sir Alex Allen even resigned in protest at the Prime Ministers decision.
” It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister”
All Ministers are expected to tell the truth to Parliament. If a Minister inadvertently misleads Parliament they are expected to correct the record. However, if a Minister deliberately misleads Parliament they are expected to resign. There is one particularly famous example of a resignation under this doctrine. John Profumo, the Secretary of State for War, was forced to resign in 1963 for misleading Parliament about over the affair he had with a mistress of a Soviet Spy.
Recently, the current Prime Minister has himself been accused of deliberately misleading Parliament. A video produced by Peter Stefanovic went viral with over 42 million views which selected a number of times that Boris Johnson was alleged to have mislead Parliament.
Since this, the Prime Minister has been embroiled with ‘partygate’ and it has been suggested that he misled Parliament over whether he misled Parliament about these. He has been asked a number of times whether he will resign if prosecuted by the Metropolitan Police but has consistently refused to answer this question.
Of course, the Prime Minister is pretty unlikely to call for his own resignation under the code. However, critics will argue that this shows a fundamental weakness – that the code is not independently set or monitored. In a petition calling on making lying to Parliament received 133,021 signatures. Unsurprisingly, the Government response was that:
” The Government does not intend to introduce legislation of this nature. MPs must abide by the Code of Conduct and conduct in the Chamber is a matter for the Speaker.”
Chris Grayling has a reputation as being one of the worst Government Ministers in recent years. Despite this, he held numerous positions in Government including Transport Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons, Justice Secretary and Minister for Employment. During his Ministerial Career he made a number of well publicised gaffes:
- In 2010 he was recorded saying that B&Bs should have the right to turn away Gay Couples. He later apologised.
- In 2014 he banned books being sent to Prisoners. The decision was immediately reversed by the next Justice Secretary, Michael Gove.
- Grayling pushed through changes that would cut legal aid for many people, including domestic abuse victims. The Court of Appeal ruled the changed unlawful.
- In 2019 he oversaw a meltdown of railway services which even saw the East Coast Mainline renationalised because it was poorly run and monitored by government.
- He awarded a post-Brexit ferry contract to a company that not only had no ferries, but had never owned a single ferry previously.
- In 2014 he oversaw the privatisation of the probation service which turned out to be a disaster. Five years later the move was entirely reversed.
This many issues led to a number of social media memes and jokes about him, such as:
However, rather than being sacked due to incompetence, Grayling (widely nicknamed failing Grayling) was instead reshuffled. This is a tactic often used by Prime Ministers as sacking a Minister reflects on their performance, not just on the Minister sacked.
As Education Secretary Gavin Williamson made a plethora of mistakes and lost the confidence of the teaching profession. Some of these included:
- The chaos of the August 2020 exam results which saw results changed after huge discrepancies created by the algorithm.
- Repeated U-Turns over issues like Free School Meals, COVID closures and failure to provide equipment for remote learning for students from disadvantaged areas.
There was some suggestion, although unverified, that Williamson was able to stay in his role so long because he ‘had something on’ Boris Johnson. This perception was enhanced by the fact that he had served as the Government Chief Whip. In his autobiography Gavin Barwell, Theresa May’s former Chief of Staff, suggested he threatened not to go quietly if sacked by Theresa May.
What are the merits of IMR as a convention?
- It ensures there is always someone who is meant to be accountable for everything that happens in Government. This theoretically stops the government from just consistently ‘passing the buck’.
- It keeps the Civil Service on its toes – Civil Servants know that they will not be named if something goes wrong. However, they are still kept on their toes by knowing that their mistakes could mean their minister gets in trouble. Although Civil Servants are unlikely to be sacked for making mistakes, they chances of future promotion and harmony will be damaged by it.
- It facilitates the work of the opposition – The fact each Government Minister has a direct opponent in the Shadow Cabinet means that they proactively try to justify government policy.
What are the limits of IMR as a convention?
- Ministers very rarely resign due to Ministerial failures. This is because accepting that resignation would reflect badly on the Prime Minister and Government as a whole. This can lead to poor Ministers staying in Government.
- Despite being ultimately responsible, Ministers are increasingly able to blame special advisors and civils servants for their mistakes. For example, following the leak of a video of civil servants discussing how to deflect questions about parties during party-gate Allegra Stratton resigned, rather than the Prime Minister.
In 2020, following the examination results fiasco it was Sally Collier, Head of Ofqual, who resigned rather than the Minister responsible – Gavin Williamson. Another famous example of this was when Michael Howard refused to resign from the Home Office following escapes from Parkhurst Prison. Instead, he sacked the Director-General of the Prison Service, Derek Lewis. This led to one of the most famous political interviews in History in which Howard refused 12 times whether he had threatened to overrule Lewis on the issue!
- When Ministers do resign it is often a tactical decision in order to take the pressure off of the government. These Ministers are often found back in Government after a short period. Ministers sacked often re-join the Government. An example to consider here is the case of Gavin Williamson. In May 2019 he was sacked as Defence Secretary for allegedly leaking national security information to a reporter. There are few more egregious examples of misconduct that a Minister can engage in. However, remarkably, just two months later he returned under a new Prime Minister as Secretary of State for Education. This shows that ministerial resignations (or sackings) and not as significant as they arguably should be.
- Often the Government is less concerned with the reality of a situation than with image. For example, in 2021 the Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, was alleged to have told a Police Officer to learn his “f**ing place” and that he was a “pleb”. Mitchell denied the language he was alleged to have used, but admitted he had been rude. Whilst it was Mitchell’s word against the officers, the Conservative Leadership was conscious that ‘plebgate’ was reinforcing an image of the Tories as elitist and out of touch. As such, Mitchell was asked to resign.
- Ministers are arguably held to an unfair moral standard. Often Ministers have been forced to resign due to perceived moral failures, even if things that simply would not have the same impact in any other profession. A good example of this might be found in Ron Davies. In 1997 he was sacked as Welsh Secretary after agreeing to go to dinner with a man he met on Clapham Common. He was subsequently mugged at knifepoint. The full details of what happened never emerged, but the notion that he had done something for which the average person might be sacked his hard to maintain.
What are famous examples of Collective Responsibility being enforced?
Robin Cook – Iraq War (2003)
One of the most famous examples of a resignation of a resignation under Collective Responsibility was Robin Cook in 2003. Cook was a Senior Labour Minister and had been Foreign Secretary and a key figure in the formation of New Labour. In 2003, however, he disagreed with the decision to go to war with Iraq without first seeking a new resolution from the UN Security Council. He subsequently gave a powerful speech from the backbenches:
“I applaud the heroic efforts that the prime minister has made in trying to secure a second resolution. I do not think that anybody could have done better than the foreign secretary in working to get support for a second resolution within the Security Council. But the very intensity of those attempts underlines how important it was to succeed. Now that those attempts have failed, we cannot pretend that getting a second resolution was of no importance.”
” Ironically, it is only because Iraq’s military forces are so weak that we can even contemplate its invasion. Some advocates of conflict claim that Saddam’s forces are so weak, so demoralised and so badly equipped that the war will be over in a few days. We cannot base our military strategy on the assumption that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a threat.“
“[Iraq] probably still has biological toxins and battlefield chemical munitions, but it has had them since the 1980s when US companies sold Saddam anthrax agents and the then British Government approved chemical and munitions factories. Why is it now so urgent that we should take military action to disarm a military capacity that has been there for 20 years, and which we helped to create?“
“What has come to trouble me most over past weeks is the suspicion that if the hanging chads in Florida had gone the other way and Al Gore had been elected, we would not now be about to commit British troops.“
“It has been a favourite theme of commentators that this House no longer occupies a central role in British politics. Nothing could better demonstrate that they are wrong than for this House to stop the commitment of troops in a war that has neither international agreement nor domestic support.”
“I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the government.“
Lord Frost – COVID Plan B
A recent example of Collective Responsibility can be found in Lord Frost. Frost was the Cabinet Member responsible for Brexit and was previously a Special Advisor to Boris Johnson. He had been given a peerage so that he could sit in the Cabinet. However, in December 2021 he resigned from the Government over the plans to introduce ‘Plan B’ COVID restrictions. In his letter to the PM he said:
” We also need to learn to live with Covid and I know that is your instinct too. You took a brave decision in July, against considerable opposition, to open up the country again. Sadly it did not prove to be irreversible, as I wished, and believe you did too. I hope we can get back on track soon and not be tempted by the kind of coercive measures we have seen elsewhere.”
Another recent resignation that took place in a dramatic fashion was that of Lord Agnew as Treasury Minister. He resigned whilst speaking from the Despatch Box in the House of Lords saying that the Government was failing to adequately deal with fraudulent claims by companies for COVID-19 relief. He said that “the current state of affairs is not acceptable” and, and that such, “it feels somewhat dishonest to stay on in that role”.
Brexit and Collective Responsibility
No issue has seen more resignations under the doctrine of Collective Responsibility than Brexit and it is unlikely the number will ever be surpassed.
After the referendum result, and the formation of Theresa May’s Cabinets, Collective Responsibility was back in force after David Cameron suspended it for the referendum. Although there were always going to be disagreements in Cabinet over Brexit, Ministers have been expected to sell Theresa May’s vision of the direction it should take. However, in total 36 Government Ministers resigned from Theresa May’s Government over Brexit.
Some of the most prominent of these resignations were:
David Davis – David Davis was appointed to the newly founded Cabinet position of Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (Brexit Secretary). During the referendum campaign he had campaigned for Britain to leave the European Union. As Brexit Secretary it was his job to negotiate with the EU about the terms of Britain’s Exit. It quickly became clear that he was being largely sidelined by Theresa May and when she announced her Chequers Plan he decided he could no longer stay in post.
Resignation Letter Quote: ” The Cabinet decision on Friday crystallised this problem. In my view the inevitable consequence of the proposed policies will be to make the supposed control by Parliament illusory rather than real. As I said at Cabinet, the “common rule book” policy hands control of large swathes of our economy to the EU and is certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense.”
Boris Johnson – Theresa May made Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary when she became Prime Minister. He had campaigned to leave the European Union and was seen my many to have been the most decisive voice in the Leave campaign. In his role as Foreign Secretary Johnson should have been taking a lead role in negotiating Britain’s Exit from the EU. However, it was clear that he never really agreed with the direction Theresa May was pursuing. He had already pushed the boundaries of Collective Responsibility many times before his eventual resignation. For example, he had written a column for the Daily Telegraph in 2017 in which he laid out a vision of Brexit that seemed different to that of the Prime Minister. Johnson finally resigned on the 9th July 2018 after stating that he could not accept the Prime Minister’s Chequers Plan.
Resignation Letter Quote: ” Brexit should be about opportunity and hope. It should be a chance to do things differently, to be more nimble and dynamic, and to maximise the particular advantages of the UK as an open, outward-looking global economy. That dream is dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt.”
Dominic Raab – Appointed Brexit Secretary after the resignation of David Davis, Raab was in post for little more than four months. He decided to resign the morning after Theresa May announced her Draft Withdrawal Agreement with the EU. Raab had always held reservations over the direction of the negotiations and decided not to stay in the Cabinet and support the Prime Minister’s agreement with the EU.
Resignation Letter Quote: “I cannot reconcile the terms of the proposed deal with the promises we made to the country in our manifesto at the last election. This is, at its heart, a matter of public trust.”
When is Collective Responsibility set aside?
Collective Responsibility has been traditionally set aside during national referendums. This happened in both the 1975 EEC Referendum and the 2016 EU Referendum. This was because there was a clear split within the Cabinet as to which side of the campaign they would support. For example, in the 2016 EU Referendum the Cabinet was split. Whilst most Cabinet Members supported Remain, five actively campaigned to leave: Michael Gove, John Whittingdale, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and Priti Patel.
Collective Responsibility has also been relaxed (if not set aside) during periods of Coalition. Between 2010-2015 there were a number of occasions when Ministers disagreed with each other. Despite a ‘Coalition Agreement’ that tried to amalgamate the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Manifesto there was always going to be tension within government. There were some notable examples of this. For instance, Liberal Democrat Business Secretary Vince Cable was regularly at odds in public with Conservative Cabinet Members. In 2013 he criticised the Conservative Party for their “ugly” and “blinkered” policies. In particular he attacked Conservative policies on immigration, the economy and Europe.
Finally, Collective Responsibility will sometimes be laid aside through a ‘Free Vote’ in the House of Commons. This is a vote in which whipping is suspended, normally because it is a particularly contentious vote or one that calls on an MPs individual morality in order to make their judgement. A good example of this was the vote on Same-Sex Marriage in 2013. Whilst David Cameron as PM supported Same-Sex Marriage and voted for it, he allowed a number of his Cabinet to vote against it or abstain but still remain in the Cabinet. They included Owen Paterson (Environment Secretary) and David Jones (Welsh Secretary) who voted against the bill while then Defence Secretary Philip Hammond abstained.
Sometimes, certain Ministers have been given more latitude to be critical of the Government than others – depending upon their seniority, experience or political popularity. Some good examples of this can be found in the case of Boris Johnson and a spat between Michael Gove and Theresa May.
When Theresa May became Prime Minister in 2016 she had to assemble her Cabinet. This was a very difficult job, particularly given the unique political circumstances she found herself in. She decided to make Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary because he was too much of a ‘big beast’ to remain outside the cabinet. She rationalised that he would be a bigger threat to her outside the cabinet when he could say entirely what he wanted than inside the cabinet where he would be bound (at least in theory) by Collective Responsibility. To put it in the colloquial – it is better to have someone inside your tent pi**ing out than someone outside your tent pi**ing in! In fact, even within the Cabinet Johnson attacked May’s policies in the media – but the political climate meant she was unable to sack him.
In 2014 two of the most Senior Ministers – Michael Gove and Theresa may – were engaged in a public spat over schools and the radicalisation of young people. At the time Gove was Education Secretary and May Home Secretary and so both had a stake in the issue. Both sniped at each other in the media and each blamed the other’s department for the issues. Things became so bad that David Cameron had to ask the Cabinet Secretary to intervene. However, despite both clearly breaching CMR it would not have been possible for Cameron to sack two such senior ministers.
What are the strengths of CMR as a convention?
- Collective Responsibility is not concrete. The fact that this is the case means it can be suspended for an issue that goes beyond party politics, for example the Brexit Referendum or the vote on Same-Sex Marriage.
- Having Collective Responsibility reinforces the very fact of Cabinet Government. It ensures a common message is common from Government and avoids confusion.
- It encourages ‘joined-up thinking’ in government as decisions taken by one department will inevitably impact on others.
- It encourages debate to happen behind close doors. For example, prior to the decision of Boris Johnson to introduce his ‘living with COVID’ plan there was fierce debate between the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and the Health Secretary Sajid Javid about the plan to remove free Lateral Flow Tests. Whilst they disagreed on this issue, both then supported it in public afterwards.
What are the limits of CMR as a convention?
- In recent years Cabinet Responsibility has been even harder to maintain due to the predominance of leaks. It is easy for Ministers to ‘brief’ against each other and maintain ‘plausible deniability’. The Government of Tony Blair was hurt by the fact that even the Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer were briefing against each other in the media. This undermined collective responsibility, even though not explicitly.
- Some Ministers are just too powerful to sack. The example above is a good one. However difficult it was for Tony Blair to work with Gordon Brown it would have been politically suicidal for him to sack him. For the same reason, Theresa May held onto Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary until his resignation.
- Further to this, enforcing Collective Responsibility is entirely at the discretion of the Prime Minister and is not legally binding. They are unlikely to do so if removing a Minister risks harming them politically.
- As Collective Responsibility is not based on statute, but on convention, it cannot be adequately scrutinised by Parliament.
How significant are IMR and CMR as conventions?
Ultimately, whatever their strengths may be, they are only strong if the Prime Minister chooses to enforce them. The biggest issue with both conventions is that under the Ministerial Code the Prime Minister is the judge, jury and executioner. The PM decides whether an investigation should take place, they decided whether the convention has been breached and they decide on any punishment. Any finding that a Minister has breached the code reflects on the Prime Minister themselves, they are therefore very reluctant to find against them. They will normally only do so if the media pressure becomes too much of a distraction for the Government.
In addition, sacking someone for breaching the Ministerial Code may create political enemies. Famously, David Cameron said this in his autobiography:
“Friends in business used to say, ‘We all have to take tough decisions to get the right top team – why all the fuss about political reshuffles?’ To which I would reply, ‘Yes, but you don’t have to appoint your entire team on the same day, in full view of the world’s television cameras. And the ones you sack go away. The ones I sack sit behind me and plot my downfall’
The fact that the Ministerial Code has now statutory backing arguably increases its legitimacy. However, Prime Ministers are unlikely to give up their Royal Prerogative right to unilaterally make decisions on the make-up of their cabinet.
The old adage that ‘Civil Servants advise whilst Ministers decide’ is also now simply not as clear as it once was. With powerful unelected figures like Alistair Campbell and Dominic Cummings dominating government Ministers are often now the subservient characters. If this is the case, expecting Ministers to take ultimate responsible for all decisions is now questionable.
This image of the domineering Special Advisor is represented the award winning show ‘The Thick of It’ where the character of Malcom Tucker is based on Alistair Campbell.
Ultimately, it is clear that both the conventions of IMR and CMR are not particularly significant and do not provide a significant check on the Government. Arguably, the only way to fix this would be to create an independent body to exercise discretion over whether the Ministerial Code has been breached and to have independent control over the reprimands. Yet, in the ever-present catch-22 that exists in British politics, no Prime Minister is likely to give up a power in a decision that might be popular in the short-term, but may undermine them in the longer term.