Collective Responsibility

Having no written constitution, the UK has long been dependent on strict adherence to a number of conventions in order to ensure the continued functionality of Parliament and Government. Of course being unwritten such conventions are able to be flexed and forgotten in accordance with the political climate of the time – this is seen by many as the great advantage of the UK constitution over those such as the USA’s. One such conventions, and perhaps the most politically expedient, is that of Cabinet collective responsibility – that members of the Cabinet must publically support the policies of the Government, and if they are unable to do so they must resign. Recently though, statements made that may be considered to be breaches of this usually hard and fast rule have been turned a blind eye to.

It was just before Christmas that Vince Cable, whilst being interviewed on The Andrew Marr Show, said that the Conservatives were ‘in a panic because of Ukip’ before going on to say that ‘the responsibility of politicians in this situation is to look at the facts; and the simple point is that there is very little evidence of benefit tourism of people coming from eastern Europe.’ Later in his answer Dr Cable stated that immigration panics periodically emerge, making reference Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood speech’ prompting Tory backbencher Nigel Mills to call for the minister’s resignation claiming ‘Mr Cable’s always had a rather creative interpretation of what collective responsibility ought to look like’. Downing Streets take on the matter was that ‘Vince is a member of the government and supports government policy. The words he chooses to do that are up to him.’

The above is almost mild in comparison to Cables open criticism of the Home Secretary’s plans to introduce immigrations bonds, and his repeated expressions of fear for the consequences of George Osborne’s flagship ‘Right to Buy’ policy.

Its not just the Liberal Democrats speaking out of alignment with government policy. Also on the panel that Sunday was Conservative MP Anna Soubry, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence. Appearing on Question Time last November Soubry lay into Nigel Farage accusing member of his party of spreading misinformation, and he himself of scaremongering. However she went on to speak up for immigrants saying ‘These are good people… they come here to work.’ quite at odds with the Governments line on immigration and specifically their efforts to tackle supposed ‘benefit tourists’.

Two days later The Spectator reported on rumours that Tory High Command were already aware of Soubry what was planning to say before her appearance, and that they had failed to dissuade from delivering such a response to the UKIP leader (one which in the eyes of many applied quite well to her own parties leadership). It was suggested that Lynton Crosby and Craig Oliver (the PM’s strategist and communications officer) were clearly ‘more loved than feared…’

It is not just the current Government but also the Shadow Cabinet that has seen individuals step out from unblinking solidarity with the party line. With arguably great consequence Dianne Abbot stated that she was against military action in Syria, before the opposition leadership had decided on its stance. Ed Milliband then came out as also being opposed to military action and a month later Abbot had lost her position as Shadow Minister for Public Health. Perhaps this case is an argument against suggesting collective responsibility is on its way out, but it was never openly the case that this was why Abbot got the sack in the reshuffle – and if it was the response was delayed and disguised.

One of the most demonstrative and recent instances of the party line getting a bit wobbly was unmissable frontbencher Michael Gove’s open discussion with the Department for Culture and Foreign Office. It had emerged than both of the latter wished not to lay blame at Germany’s door in the approaching commemorations of the First World War. In response Gove wrote an article in the Daily Mail discussing the tone in which the war should be remembered  including the paragraph ‘The ruthless social Darwinism of the German elites, the pitiless approach they took to occupation, their aggressively expansionist war aims and their scorn for the international order all made resistance more than justified.’

Undoubtedly the Parliament of 2010 – 2015 has been exceptionally rebellious, but so too has the Cabinet. That both the grip of the Whip’s office and adherence to collective responsibility has seemingly slackened simultaneously may present a unique opportunity for the actual opinions of the people’s representatives to be heard, and not just the same old party lines.