It lasted for 48 hours. Two days after Theresa May told Conservative ministers that they must adhere to the convention of collective responsibility and support the agreed Brexit plan, the prime minister had to accept the resignation of her Brexit secretary, David Davis, and foreign secretary, Boris Johnson.
In his resignation letter, Davis wrote that he did not support the new agreed strategy and was following the collective responsibility convention in resigning.
Collective responsibility only concerns ministers in government serving within the cabinet. Dating back to the 18th century, it is a constitutional convention which holds that members of the cabinet should support all governmental decisions. While it’s a convention rather than a legal requirement, ministers are nonetheless expected to show a “united front” for all government actions and policies.
In practice, this means that decisions taken by the cabinet are binding on all its members. While a minister may disagree in private, they must still publicly support the agreed position. According to the Cabinet Manual, should a minister feel they cannot abide by the public “united front” requirement, then they must resign.
Perhaps one of the most famous examples of the convention in practice was the resignation of Robin Cook in 2003 as leader of the House of Commons for Tony Blair’s Labour government. Under the collective responsibility rules, Cook was unable to publicly speak out about his objections to the war in Iraq. Following the tenets of the convention, he resigned from his office, and spoke from the backbenches of his disagreement with the government’s position.
Such a principled approach to collective responsibility saw Cook receive a standing ovation. Nonetheless, such resignations over not toeing government lines are rare, as more often than not individual ministers want to hold on to government office.
While it is largely up to the prime minister to enforce the convention, it is seen as more politically honourable – and better for the party – for a minister to resign when they want to speak out against the government’s collective position.
Agreeing to differ
The Cabinet Manual makes it clear that collective responsibility applies in all instances, “save where it is explicitly set aside”. As the Labour prime minister James Callaghan remarked in 1977: “I certainly think that the doctrine should apply, except in cases where I announce it does not.”
The suspension of collective responsibility – otherwise known as an “agreement to differ” – is rare. Within the UK, it has only been implemented on six previous occasions – ranging from the first on the issue of tariff policy in 1932, to proposals for alternative voting systems during general elections under the 2010 coalition agreement.
Both referendums pertaining to the European Union – the first in 1975 on UK membership of the European Economic Community, and the second on the 2016 Brexit referendum – carried a temporary suspension of collective responsibility on the specific issues.
Since David Cameron gave his cabinet freedom to differ over Brexit, there has been a progressive (and very public) weakening of cabinet collective responsibility.
Even before his resignation as foreign secretary, Johnson had repeatedly criticised the government’s approach to Brexit. The treasury minister, Liz Truss, has openly criticised “male macho” cabinet colleagues. In particular, the perceived “hot air” coming out of the Department for the Environment – with the suggestion that “wood burning Goves” are trying to tell us how to live our lives.
Cameron only gave his ministers freedom to differ over Brexit. However, reinstating collective responsibility has been a significant challenge for May’s administration. And she has now lost two ministers who could not adhere to it.
Why it must now endure
For May’s administration to survive, collective unity – alongside confidence and trust – is now needed. Remaining within the cabinet, and publicly speaking out against an agreed direction, weakens unity, causes confusion, and undermines the leadership of the prime minister.
The convention is crucial as it is the government that leads the policy and direction of the country. Its requirements are based on the foundations that unity is needed to deliver the government’s agenda, and projects stability, strength and leadership both domestically and overseas.
A united front among ministers is necessary for political stability. Without such, the lack of unity has consequences for the UK’s ability to negotiate with the EU, while also carrying economic and trade implications.