The transformation of collective responsibility

By: Laura Gherman

Collective responsibility is a constitutional convention which has existed since the eighteenth century aiming to unite ministers so that they speak with one voice when facing a monarch and the public. The principles behind this convention were born from ministers agreeing in advance the advice they would give to their monarch, with their unanimity then protecting them should disagreement arise between the cabinet and the monarch.

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, collective responsibility evolved to ensure anonymity for ministers across Parliament, less to avoid any uncooperative monarchs than to ensure unity on government positions in Parliament. From this stems the idea that collective responsibility must always be followed (except on rare occasions when it is explicitly set aside). In its current form, collective responsibility has two main components. The first is that ministers are able to have frank, confidential discussions before reaching a collective decision, and the second is that once this position has been agreed, ministers abide by this decision and vote in line with the government. As such, collective responsibility covers voting against the government line, criticising a government position, and the sharing of confidential information to any parties outside of the immediate cabinet. Ministers that break collective responsibility are expected to resign from government. Or so convention holds. 

More recently the House of Lords Constitution Committee’s 2014 report on the Constitutional Implications of Coalition Government highlights two positive aspects of collective responsibility. These are: (i) compromise which means that policy can be more nuanced or better crafted and (ii) that the government as a whole is responsible for its policies and can be held to account. The latter in particular has merit in an age where identifying individual accountability can be difficult. Lastly, the Constitution Committee report also argued that collective responsibility can benefit the civil service, which can be sure to press ahead with work without fear of a change in policy. The practical work of the civil service is vital, and it is important that they are able to function beyond any political tensions which may arise inside the cabinet.

Although this principle is not regulated by statute, some elements of it have been formalised in the Ministerial Code and the Prime Minister has the authority to order the Cabinet Office to investigate any breaches of the Code. Perhaps because of this, it is rare for the Government to set aside collective responsibility, but two of the most well-known examples are, of course, the 2016 EU referendum and the 1975 referendum on the European Economic Community. Here ministers were allowed to speak freely about their position whilst retaining their cabinet positions. Other than European referenda, the other times were over tariff policy in 1932 and on direct elections to the European Assembly in 1977.

As the Lords’ 2014 report on the Constitutional Implications of Coalition Government suggests, it is believed that the practical benefits of collective responsibility justifies its continuing existence. However, the reality of how it is practiced has more to do with the political climate than constitutional convention. The political realities of the day, such as the majority of the government, the position of the Prime Minister, and the unity of the governing party ultimately determine how collective responsibility is enforced. 

Having a rebellious cabinet minister is not an unusual affair. In fact, it is fairly normal practice. How collective responsibility functions under these conditions varies, though. James Callaghan was well known for his opposition to the Labour Government’s industrial relations proposals, In Place of Strife, back in the late 1960s, yet he remained a cabinet minister for most of that time and went on to become Prime Minister. Equally, in 2003, Clare Short remained in the cabinet after she publicly voiced her opposition to government policy on Iraq. She resigned from her role two months later. As Foreign Secretary in Theresa May’s government, Boris Johnson criticized the Government many times regarding Brexit and was accused repeatedly of breaching collective responsibility. However, as it was the Prime Minister’s prerogative to order an investigation into this, no formal process was ever enacted.

Why then would Prime Ministers accept rebellious ministers in their government and turn a blind eye to breaches of collective responsibility? As the recent example of Suella Braverman best demonstrates, it is to balance power within a leading party and to keep opponents inside the tent and in line with the government as much as possible. 

James Callaghan, when challenged by Margaret Thatcher in 1977 over the suspension of collective responsibility relating to direct elections legislation, famously said ‘I certainly think that the doctrine should apply, except in cases where I announce that it does not.’ Callaghan’s rebuke highlights how easily the “constitutional principle” of collective responsibility may be flaunted by those with enough influence. Indeed, Boris Johnson’s position as heir apparent was presumably why he was never disciplined for breaching collective responsibility by Theresa May. Whilst Suella Braverman, perhaps one of the worst secretaries of state this country has ever had, managed to avoid being sacked for openly defying Downing Street for a whole year when holding the most important office of state might seem unusual, her position should be seen in the context of a deeply divided party and a weak government. 

There is perhaps a distinction to be made between instances where Prime Ministers are unwilling or unable to enforce this principle. Just because a minister has breached collective responsibility does not necessarily mean that a Prime Minister wishes to dispense with them. However, in either case, this fundamental principle is in truth deeply political. That its operation relies on the Prime Minister is in itself an example of the extent to which the realpolitik of our constitution relies on executive power. 

In her resignation speech in the House of Commons, Clare Short gave a scathing assessment to the state of collective decision making in 2003: 

In [Labour’s] second term, the problem is the centralisation of power into the hands of the Prime Minister and an increasingly small number of advisers who make decisions in private without proper discussion. It is increasingly clear, I am afraid, that the Cabinet has become, in Bagehot’s phrase, a dignified part of the constitution—joining the Privy Council. There is no real collective responsibility because there is no collective; just diktats in favour of increasingly badly thought through policy initiatives that come from on high.

Short’s analysis is as valid today as it was then. A regression in cabinet government in favour of prime ministerial power means the original basis of collective responsibility is itself undermined. 

In part because of this, arguments in favour[1] of moving away from the principle of collective responsibility are common. I have a lot sympathy with these given the lack of benefit any immediate and detailed study of collective responsibility suggests, and especially once this is expressed through a statistical framework. Given that the principle of collective responsibility relies on the idea that cabinet unity reflects a compromise of sorts, it is also reliant on the assumption that a compromise between cabinet colleagues leads to the best outcome. In reality, it is simply the middle ground everyone has decided to meet on on an issue. 

In conclusion, the principle of collective responsibility isn’t only one of the more fascinating aspects of the British constitution system, but also a principle which has varied much in practice. The philosophical principles of unity over division, or to quote our current Prime Minister, ‘unite or die’, continue to have some merit. However, since it has become introduced into the Ministerial Code, collective responsibility has become, increasingly, a political weapon, underlining the power the Prime Minister holds over his cabinet. This begs the question then, why has this vital convention not been reformed to ensure both the obedience of the cabinet, and to ensure the role of the Prime Minister is less dictatorial when it comes to its application? An unequal – and political – application of this policy does not benefit any political system. A better and more codified convention is needed to better reflect the politics of the twenty-first century and to ensure that no Prime Minister is able to use, abuse or ignore the principle when it suits him or her. Ministers should be kept accountable for both their competency and conduct through a system which is fair, equal, and at least in some form, codified. 

Laura Gherman.

Laura Gherman is a parliamentary aide to a senior backbench Conservative MP and the Vice-Chair for LGBT+ Conservatives. 

The Constitution Society is committed to the promotion of informed debate and is politically impartial. Any views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society.

[1] B.K. Winetrobe, “Collective responsibility in devolved Scotland”, Public Law I (2003), pp 24-31.