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Ministerial Resignations Are Often Political Theatre At Its Best

This article was first published on Suite 101, 21 October 2011. Now, a year on, in the wake of the resignation of the Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell, over an issue that raises all sorts of questions about integrity, the arrogance of office, police records, hidden police agendas and the judgement of senior politicians… it is timely to republish it.

Fox: Ill-Judged Resignation Speech - USAF (http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Liam_Fox_with_Air_Marshal_Stuart_Peach.jpg)

Shakespeare wrote: ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving of it’. (Macbeth). If only the same could be said of many who leave ministerial life.

The Ministerial Code is issued at the start of each administration by the new Prime Minister. It’s not formalised in the constitution, but has evolved through precedence and guidance. By convention, Ministers inform and explain, apologise, take remedial action and resign in ministerial responsibility. Each is responsible for his/her private conduct.

October 2011’s resignation of Dr Liam Fox, Defence Secretary, for ‘mistakes in blurring the distinction between personal friendship and ministerial responsibility’ was in a long line of losses from public office that governments endure, human failings and political warfare being what they are.

Fox finally resigned (a gift to headline writers: ‘Fox hounded out’) after it became obvious that Westminster’s sleaze watchdog was probing deep into his relationship with his close friend Adam Werrity. Not only had the Ministerial Code of Conduct been broken, his job had become untenable. He had become a liability.

He took the route of others before and made an early personal statement to the House of Commons. Commentators were broadly critical of his performance. ‘Badly judged’, ‘insult to injury’, ‘bitter’ and as he was ‘the author of his own misfortune’, it was palpably wrong to blame the media, or anybody else.

Sometimes press and public delight when ministers quit, either ‘voluntarily’ or are pushed. But the fact remains, most ministerial departures arise through failings of the incumbent, not any third party. To seek self-vindication in Parliament is a privilege that does few any good.

Honourable Resignations?

The Coalition government was just three weeks old when Liberal-Democrat David Laws, treasury minister, fell on his metaphorical sword and made history. He was the first post-war Lib-Dem Cabinet minister to resign, the first to go over financial impropriety and the shortest-serving Cabinet member in modern history.

Principle drove then-Leader of the House, Robin Cook, to step down over the invasion of Iraq, 2003. Estelle Morris,Education Secretary honourably resigned in 2002 as she was ‘not as good at the job as she was in her previous position’. Harold Wilson resigned twice, first as junior minister protesting NHS health charges in April 1951, and then as Labour Prime Minister in 1976 when he reached 60.

Resignations in Perspective

The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) did a study when Tony Blair resigned as Prime Minister which showed that a lower percentage of ministers resigned during Blair’s period of power than during the terms of Major, Thatcher or Callaghan. Professor Keith Dowding and Dr Gita Subrahmanyam categorised calls for and actual resignations under 28 administrations since 1906.

They discovered that overall Labour governments saw fewer ministers resign than Conservative; Blair sacrificed under 30% of his ministers subject to public criticism, as did Churchill, Macmillan, Wilson and Thatcher. Major lost about 40% as did Eden, Heath and Callaghan. Since 1906 more Conservatives than Labour have gone for sexual or financial scandals, but Blair lost more Cabinet members than junior ministers.

The academics concluded that while sleaze is assumed to have defeated Major’s government, Blair had as many guilty in his own ranks, but enjoyed ‘a greater capacity than Major to ride out conflict’.

Notable Individuals

Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Cecil Parkinson, was forced to resign in 1983 when it became known he had fathered a daughter by his Commons’ secretary. He took criticism for the fact that the child had special needs, and he’d never seen her, although had supported her financially. He came back into government in 1987 at Energy, followed by a move to Transport in 1989.

David Mellor held a range of junior jobs, including Treasury and then Secretary of State at National Heritage, where he was nicknamed ‘minister for fun’. He had a relationship with an actress who allegedly sucked his toes while he wore a Chelsea FC shirt, which gave the press a field day. He was the most prominent politician to pose with his wife and children for a ‘happy family’ photo call.

Peter Mandelson was another quitter who returned. He left being Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in 1998 about irregularities over a loan for a house; returned in 1999 as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, only to resign again in 2001 over accusations he had abused his position over a passport application. He became EU Commissioner.

Perhaps the most memorable was that of Sir Geoffrey Howe in 1990, because his speech to the Commons is widely agreed to have triggered the downfall of Margaret Thatcher from Downing Street, just three weeks later. Howe was her longest serving Cabinet member (sharing 700 meetings and 30 international summits with her) holding the offices of Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Commons’ Leader and Deputy Prime Minister.

Britain’s part in a tightening EU-structure was what divided them, though it was mixed up with Conservative leadership, trust and a long-surviving government. James Purnell, Blairite Labour Work and Pensions Secretary called on his premier, Gordon Brown, to ‘stand aside’, as his leadership made ‘a Conservative victory more likely, not less’.

In a week of political gamemanship in June 2009 that saw Tom Watson, Beverley Hughes, Jacqui Smith, Hazel Blears leave the government for scandal reasons, Purnell’s resignation was presumed part of a wider campaign to oust Brown. It simply added fuel to the flames of Labour’s unrest, ahead of election defeat a year later.

The Usual Patterns

Most ministers in trouble instinctively follow a script, as if they are caught up in a drama. They open by claiming to have done nothing wrong; some get the notional/lukewarm support of their Prime Minister. As things hot up they clutch any scapegoat (officials, colleagues, the media).

Next, the one in the spotlight admits to wrong-doing, enough perhaps to resign, but for the good of the country/party. The leader offers thanks for a job well done before a self-validating personal appearance in the House. If it’s been sufficiently serious, there may be further performances before Commons Select Committees or a court of law.

If he/she survives that, there’ll be a place on the back-benches to sit and stew, or become a focal point for rebellion. There will be a pay-off for ceasing to be a minister, and the continuing job of being an MP to carry out. And in due course, there’ll be an advance for the memoirs, to ‘set the story straight’.

Sources:

  • London School of Economics and Political Science, Dr Gita Subrahmanyam, Ministerial Resignations – how did Blair fare? June 2007. Web 21 October 2011.
  • BBC News, PM told to go as minister quits, 5 June 2009. Web 21 October 2011.
Image: Dr Liam Fox Before His Resignation
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