It wasn’t so long ago that ministerial resignations were made on principle and out of recognition of personal failure in post. Members of the government largely followed the convention of ministerial accountability – the notion that ministers are accountable for the blunders of their departments, including of their subordinates, and ought to resign when wrongdoings make their positions untenable.
In 1982, when the Argentines invaded the Falkland Islands, the then Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington resigned for failing to foresee the invasion, despite Margaret Thatcher’s attempts to keep him in government. It was this sort of faith in constitutional conventions that ensured government ministers were not above reproach.
In recent years, however, this principle has become more ambiguous, and members of the government have bent the convention to its limits.
Take the recent Matt Hancock debacle. Even before his personal life was splashed across the tabloids, he’d taken a verbal beating by Dominic Cummings at a ‘reveal all’ health select committee hearing, in which it was claimed he repeatedly lied to cabinet colleagues and the public throughout the course of the pandemic.
Under his watch, the Department of Health were unprepared for the outbreak. He oversaw a procurement process for PPE which was marred by nepotism. It was even suggested that he broke the ministerial code by failing to declare a stake in a family company that had won an NHS contract.
Yet despite the long list of failures in government, in the end it took a sex scandal – and accusations of hypocrisy – to topple the health secretary. Unwritten conventions like ministerial responsibility and even the black and white ministerial code barely figured in the decision – indeed, Boris Johnson continued to show loyalty to Hancock far beyond what was acceptable to the majority of the public.
But this isn’t an isolated example. Priti Patel was also rocked by bullying claims and was said to have broken the Ministerial Code by an inquiry into the incident. Yet no action was taken because the advice of the inquiry is not binding, and the code is not underpinned with legislation.
It should not become normalised to see secretaries of state survive scandal after scandal or outstay their welcome when the public at large is looking for leadership. By doing so, they avoid accountability and ultimately bolster the image of the ‘self-serving politician’ which spreads political apathy amongst the public.
We can no longer rely on quirks in our unwritten constitution, and neither can we expect leaders to reprimand their colleagues in government with new tools like the ministerial code.
The Institute for Government recently shared this view in a report named ‘Updating the ministerial code’. They argued that a “strengthened code, with proper independent investigations, will help rebuild confidence that standards still matter”.
The mechanism of control over the cabinet is solely in the hands of the Prime Minister, and this is a problem for those who believe in checks and balances on the conduct of the executive.
The regulation of government figures must be done outside the remit of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office, away from the power of the executive and granted to Parliament.
MPs hold the government to account, and if members of the government no longer respect the unwritten convention of ministerial responsibility, it must fall within Parliament to uphold this vital principle.
This doesn’t mean MPs should be able to override the Prime Minister’s prerogative and force cabinet colleagues to resign. But a robust chain of accountability must be in place. Members of the government must publicly commit to abiding by the rules, and sanctions on conduct agreed by those in public office. This should be backed with legislation to give the code legal force, giving it teeth-as the IFG suggests.
It is not acceptable for ministers to ignore codes of conduct, and it is woeful that the single arbiter of those rules is the PM. It gives the government a blank cheque to act outside the standards expected of a holder of political office without fear of consequence.
As the IFG suggests, the ministerial code must be strengthened , with ministers publicly affirming their commitment to the standards expected of them, and the rules underpinned with legislative force. This will ensure our leaders are accountable for their actions and end the pantomime of drawn-out ministerial sagas which damages our faith in politicians.