Collective Ministerial Responsibility is a convention in the UK that helps to regulate how government operates. It places expectations on the way that Ministers behave when they are in office. As a convention, it is not legally binding and, as such, there are debates over how significant it is.
What are IMR and CMR and what are the differences?
There are two conventions specifically named in the Edexcel Politics Specification, IMR and CMR (Collective Ministerial Responsibility). Whilst there are some similarities, CMR and IMR are different but remain 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 2022.
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 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 quite 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 then 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 relatively 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 policy 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.”
The end of Boris Johnson’s premiership
July 2022 saw the largest ever mass resignation from the Cabinet. This was in response Boris Johnson’s treatment of the Chris Pincher scandal, in furtherance to many other scandals afflicting his government. The first major major names to resign were Savid Javid (Health Secretary) and Rishi Sunak (Chancellor of the Exchequer). What followed was an avalanche, with 36 Ministers resigning. The PM was unable to fill those roles and it became inevitable that he would have to resign. The Ministers said they could not serve in a government in which honesty was being questioned.
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 is CMR as a convention?
Ultimately, whatever its strength may be, CMR is only strong dependent on the PM’s desire to enforce it and the respect that Ministers have for it. However, there is no doubt that CMR is a stronger convention than IMR. The fundamental principle of collective responsibility does remain in British politics and it is very rare for a Minister to openly criticise their own government. This promotes stability in government by limiting public rifts that might undermine this. However, there are undoubtedly political factors that impact its significance. For example, there are some Minsters who are able to push the boundaries of CMR because of their own position of power. In addition, they can undermine the government through private briefings that make there way into the papers.
CMR is undoubtedly a more respected convention than IMR, particularly in recent years. It helps to ensure stability in government by ensuring rifts within Government stay behind close doors. However, it is undoubtedly impacted by political factors with some Ministers being able to push its boundaries more than others.
Collective Ministerial Responsibility – The convention under which Government Ministers agree that Government decisions are taken collectively and should therefore be supported in public by all Ministers.
Free Vote – A vote in Parliament that is not whipped and in which MPS can vote freely.
Ministerial Code – The document which outlines the expectations of behaviour and conduct from Government Ministers.
Nolan Principles – A set of principles established by Lord Nolan in 1994. The principles expected of those in public life are: Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty and Leadership.