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What is Cabinet Collective Responsibility?     

Cabinet Collective Responsibility has been one of the conventions of the British Constitution. It has two elements:-

That the Cabinet is the central decision making-body of the Core Executive.  Although discussions may take place between the Prime Minister and other Ministers, or between Ministers, or in Committees of the Cabinet, where not all Cabinet Ministers are present and where, in practice, the key decisions are made, any member of the Cabinet can still ask for a final decision to be taken by the full Cabinet.

That all members of the Government must defend, in public, the decisions made by Cabinet Ministers and the Prime Minister and must vote for all proposals that the Government puts forward in Parliament. If they are unable to do so, they must resign or be prepared to be sacked by the Prime Minister.  For example, Robin Cook, who had the ministerial position of Leader of the House in the Blair Government, resigned from the Government over the decision to invade Iraq and spoke against the decision in the subsequent debate in the House of Commons.  Baroness Warsi, who was a Foreign Minister in the Cameron Government, resigned because she did not think the Government was putting enough pressure on Israel during the Gaza conflict in 2014.  

The position of Parliamentary Private Secretaries is less clear, as they are not officially Ministers, and they may be given more freedom to speak on issues and even abstain from votes but this depends on the tolerance of the PM.  Mrs Thatcher only lost one vote on the second reading of a Bill in 10 years, the Shops Act which would have extended Sunday trading, and the PPS who voted against the Government was sacked.  A Labour PPS who criticised Gordon Brown’s premiership was also sacked.

Cabinet Collective Responsibility is still important and is generally accepted by politicians. Any Minister who started to regularly criticise Government policy in the current Government would be sacked by the Prime Minister.  Cameron has recently reinforced the convention by stating that Ministers must not criticise the Government’s negotiating position in relation to EU reform between now and the start of the referendum campaign in order to keep Eurosceptic Ministers in line.

Some problems with the working of Cabinet Collective Responsibility

The idea has depended on the Cabinet collectively deciding issues and then Ministers being bound by the decisions.  Decisions are now actually taken in Cabinet Committees and in meetings between the Prime Minister and one or two Ministers rather than in Cabinet. Collective Responsibility would still work if any Cabinet Minister can still question a decision in Cabinet and have it debated but this may depend on whether the Prime Minister is willing to allow this. When Michael Heseltine tried to raise issues related to the awarding of a defence contract for helicopters to Westland, an American firm, Mrs Thatcher refused to consider it in Cabinet and Heseltine resigned.

In some instances, Ministers have been allowed latitude to oppose Government policy because it is too difficult to sack them.  Tony Blair needed John Prescott as Deputy Prime Minister as the face of traditional Labour to balance his portrayal of the party as New Labour and, when Prescott criticised Blair’s policy of creating academy schools, Blair did not take any action.  The Iraq War was so controversial and split the Labour Party and so Blair did not want to lose his International Development Secretary, Clare Short, even though she criticised the way in which the decision to go to war was made.

During the Coalition Collective Responsibility mostly held, even though this made it difficult for the Liberal Democrats to distance themselves from Conservative policies but there were still instances of criticism, for example, Vince Cable’s questioning of aspects of George Osborne’s economic policy.

Ministers may still by means of confidential press briefings and leaks make it clear that they disapprove of Government policy. Aides of Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were said to have briefed against each other and, in the 1966-70 Labour Government, James Callaghan made it quite clear the he opposed his Government’s proposed trade union reforms that Barbara Castle was trying to get through.

In the 1976 referendum campaign on EU membership, the Labour party was so divided that Wilson agreed to suspend Cabinet Collective Responsibility on the Government’s recommendation to vote Yes. Cameron may well have to do the same in the coming EU referendum because of divisions in the Conservative Party.

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