Ministerial Responsibility

Ministerial Responsibility

Collective responsibility: the notion that government (as a collective whole) is responsible to Parliament for its actions. If the government was defeated in a vote of no confidence, all of its members would resign. Under this, all ministers publically support policy from all departments, even if privately they may have some reservations. Ministers resign if they cannot publically support policy, even if it is not related to their department. Cabinet disagreements are therefore kept private and resolved privately.

Individual responsibility: the notion that ministers are responsible to Parliament for the actions of their own departments. They can be held to account for their department’s actions through Question Time or select committee scrutiny. They may resign in the event of mistakes in their departments, or from them personally, or personal scandals. Under this, civil servants in a particular department should be loyal to their minister and support their actions.

Resignations: the above concepts are illustrated by examples of ministerial resignations. For instance:

  • Edwina Currie (Conservative) resigned after incorrectly stating that the majority of UK egg production was infected with salmonella (1988)
  • Robin Cook and Clare Short (Labour) resigned as they could not support government policy on invading Iraq (2003)
  • Chris Huhne (Lib Dem) resigned after being charged with perverting the course of justice in relation to fraudulently claiming that his wife was driving his car when caught speeding in 2003. (2012. Huhne was convicted of the offence and served two months of an eight-month prison sentence)
  • Andrew Mitchell (Conservative) resigned following claims he had sworn at a police officer outside Downing Street and called him a ‘pleb’, claims which he disputed (2012)
  • Iain Duncan Smith (Conservative) resigned in protest at planned cuts to disability benefits payments (2016)

Exceptions: in some cases, collective responsibility may be weakened. For example, during the coalition, government policy needed to be negotiated between two parties, taking the coalition agreement into account. As the two parties had different sets of beliefs, and different manifestos, binding ministers to collectively support all policy would have been impossible. Therefore, certain areas were identified as being exempt from collective responsibility (for example, campaigning for the AV referendum. More informal areas of difference emerged over time, for instance disagreement over proposed parliamentary boundary changes.

The campaigns leading up to the 2016 EU referendum also saw collective responsibility suspended, to allow cabinet members to openly campaign on both sides, reflecting the differing views within the Conservative Party on the issue. David Cameron and George Osborne were amongst those campaigning for a ‘remain’ vote, whereas Michael Gove and Chris Grayling campaigned for ‘leave’. Boris Johnson was also a leave campaigner, although at the time he was not a member of the government.

What is the idea that government as a whole is responsible to Parliament?
Your answer should include: Collective / Responsibility
Who resigned over planned cuts to disability benefits in 2016?
Your answer should include: Iain / Duncan / Smith
Which event in 2008 damaged Gordon Brown’s reputation and authority?
Your answer should include: Financial / Crisis
In 2016, why was collective responsibility relaxed?
Your answer should include: EU / Referendum
What is the biased or one-sided presentation of information?
What is an informal group of advisers consulted by the PM?
Your answer should include: Kitchen / Cabinet
Which powers were once held by the monarch but are now used by the executive?
Your answer should include: Royal / Prerogative
Which Prime Minister effectively resigned due to the lack of support from their cabinet?
What is the ability to make appointments?
Which Prime Minister’s power was restricted by being in a coalition?