Individual Ministerial Responsibility (IMR) and Collective Ministerial Responsibility (CMR) are both conventions that place certain expectations on members of the government. As conventions they are not legally binding, but it is expected that they will be followed. By significance it means the impact that it has on the way the government runs and particularly in holding Ministers accountable for their actions. Ultimately, whilst CMR remains an important and reasonably binding aspect of UK politics it will be argued that IMR is lacking in any real significance in modern politics because the PM is the sole ‘judge, jury and executioner’ of it.
IMR is a convention that dictates that Ministers are responsible for everything that happens within their department and are also responsible for representing their department and the government in all their public and private dealings. Until 1994 there was no codification of what was expected of a Minister, however, the Nolan Principles then outlined seven principles that public servants should uphold. Following this, since 1997 there has been a Ministerial Code published by each administration which more precisely lays out the expectations placed on Government Ministers. One such expectation is that Ministers do not knowingly mislead Parliament and that they should resign if they do so. In addition, any inadvertent misleading of Parliament should be corrected at the first opportunity. In 2018 Amber Rudd resigned as Home Secretary after admitting that she had inadvertently misled the Home Affairs Select Committee by stating she was unaware of deportation removal targets when evidence indicated that she had seen documentation to that effect. This shows that some Ministers do continue to take their responsibilities under the code seriously. Secondly, it is also expected under the code that Ministers can ‘handle their brief’ and should resign if they cannot. In 2002 two Ministers resigned due to this, with both Estelle Morris and Stephen Byers doing so after several problems in their departments this indicates that historically such resignations could be common. Finally, private mistakes by Ministers are actionable under the code. For example, in 2021 Matt Hancock resigned as Health Secretary after admitting he had breached his own department’s COVID-19 regulations in having a romantic relationship with a colleague. The PM said that it what was right that Hancock should resign and this shows that some Ministers may take the honourable approach and resign when they have clearly breached the code. Conversely, despite these cases, there are many more numerous cases of the code not being enforced. For example, in 2020 Priti Patel was found by an independent investigation of bullying Civil Servants. However, because of the political fact that Patel is popular with the right wing of his party, the PM refused to ask for her resignation, leading to the author of the independent report to resign himself in protest! In addition, a number of Ministers who have more recently failed to adequately carry out their brief and have survived in office without being removed or tendering their resignation. Gavin Williamson oversaw a series of policy disasters as Education Secretary in 2020 and yet remained in office until September 2021, whilst Chris Grayling remained in Government for several years despite a number of high-profile policy errors which led to him being dubbed ‘Failing Grayling’ by the media. These mistakes included giving a ferry contract to a company who had never owned ferries. In these cases, the PM did not want to seek their removal because it would draw attention to the fact that their government was underperforming. This is one the key limits of IMR – the Prime Minister is ‘judge, jury and executioner’ and is unlikely to want to risk politically damaging themselves by removing their own ministers. In addition, as has been seen recently during ‘partygate’, when the PM themselves is accused of wrongdoing there is no mechanism to hold them to account under IMR. Therefore, IMR is a convention that relies extensively on the personal honour of Ministers and, as such, is too rarely enforced. Only an independent process is likely to fix this, but any PM will be reluctant to give up their own Royal Prerogative power as to when to choose to ask for the resignation of a Minister.
CMR is a convention that dictates that government decisions are taken collectively and should therefore be supported in public by all Ministers. This is an important part of Cabinet Government and is included in the Ministerial Code which says that the principle applies to all Ministers. CMR ensures joined up thinking in Government and promotes detailed discussion beyond closed 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 heatedly on this issue, both then supported the PM’s final decision in public. This strengthens government as it becomes more careful and more deliberative. Secondly, it ensures that any Minister who does not morally feel they can support a government policy should resign. The most famous example of this was Robin Cook who in 2003 resigned over the decision to invade Iraq without a second UN resolution. This enables the public to trust that Government Ministers are acting for what they believe to be right, rather than simply following orders. More recently, resignations by Lord Agnew over COVID-19 fraud and Lord Wolfson over ‘partygate’ show that this principle is still very active in British Politics. Furthermore, it is key that there is some flexibility to CMR. and the PM can suspend it if deemed necessary. For example, during the referendums and during free votes CMR is usually suspended. This is what allowed Michael Gove to campaign to Leave the EU and Philip Hammond to abstain on the vote for Same-Sex Marriage. This flexibility is a strength as it allows the convention to continue even if difficult political circumstances arise under which the convention simply could not otherwise survive intact. This was also seen during the coalition when CMR was relaxed (if not removed) to enable reasonable disagreement to emerge between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. However, in recent years collective responsibility has been harder to maintain as technology means that it is easier for Ministers to anonymously 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 clearly undermined collective responsibility, though not explicitly. Secondly, some Ministers who are considered ‘big beasts’ are shown to be above CMR. For example, Theresa May appointed Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary not because she liked or respected him but because he was a potential leadership rival. As Foreign Secretary he consistently briefed against May and even wrote damaging articles in the Daily Telegraph but she could not sack him, instead he resigned in July 2018 arguably causing her even more damage. This shows that CMR is only significant to the PM if it suits them politically and will be abandoned if it is not. Finally, CMR is limited as a concept if there is not a fundamental ideological unity in government. This was seen between 2016 and 2019 when it was impossible for Theresa May to govern effectively. This was because different factions of her party had widely disparate views on Brexit, with One Nation Conservatives like Philip Lee in the same party as the fiercely Eurosceptic European Research Group. During her premiership Theresa May suffered over 50 resignations under CMR – all relating to Brexit. Some her Ministers voted against her in Parliament but were allowed to remain in office. For example, eight ministers, including Andrea Leadsom, voted against an Article 50 extension in March 2019. Such was May’s weakness that she could not enforce CMR on these Ministers, undermining its credibility. Yet, on balance, these limits are not substantial. Some ministers will always be more powerful and influential than others whilst Brexit created circumstances unlikely to ever be repeated. CMR still moderates dissent, even if it exists.
CMR is undoubtedly considerably more significant that IMR in British Politics. Whilst it is sometimes relaxed in certain circumstances, this is a political necessity and should not really be seen as a weakness. In addition, it normally encourages reflective government behind the scenes and encourages a consistent message in public which avoids given confused signals to the electorate. Whilst PMs do sometimes have to relax it for certain ministers and some cannot adequately enforce it, this is still a rarity, and most Ministers are bound by it. On the other hand, IMR has limited significance. It relies on the honour of Ministers to enforce it as few PMs will do so as it may be to their political detriment. By far biggest limiting factor is the PMs role as the ultimate adjudicator of the code and this means that in reality is lacks in significance.
Why is this a Level 5 Response?
- Normally it is best to write thematically. However, in some questions, this is not possible. A question that asks you to consider both IMR and CMR in the same essay may be one of them.
- Both IMR and CMR are explored in depth with the different facets of them considered.
- Detailed knowledge is deployed throughout the piece, which is often very specific.
- Analysis is built upon this detailed knowledge, with a consistent focus on answering the question.
- Clear mini-conclusions are used at the end of the section which consider what the view on the question is as regards the issue that has been discussed.
- The conclusion is c synthesises the entirety of the arguments made before coming to a clear judgement.
- Synoptic links are made to Paper 1 through consideration of factions. (This is a difficult question for synoptic links so examiners will not be looking for much).
- Political terminology is deployed throughout the essay.