1. To what extent can it be said that the Prime Minister is primus inter pares today? On which factors does this depend?
Primus inter pares is Latin for ‘first amongst equals’. Consequently, the idea has traditionally been that the Prime Minister was one of a relatively small number of ministers who developed government policy together. However, in recent decades Prime Ministers have accumulated a range of powers which have increased their importance at the expense of their other ministers. These include conducting international relations, security and intelligence issues, and dealing with constitutional matters including managing the relationship that central government has with the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
It has also been the case that electorally successful Prime Ministers such as Tony Blair appeared to dominate their governments, deciding government policy after consulting only a select few ministers rather than the full Cabinet. The relevant minister would then be tasked with implementing the policy. Prime Ministers are more likely to pursue this type of government if they are personally popular with the electorate and have secured a large majority. Prime Ministers with smaller majorities such as John Major find that they need to govern more consensually with their ministers to ensure that they maintain the support of their political party.
2. Can it be said that we have ‘Cabinet Government’ today?
The ideal of Cabinet Government, as expressed by the Haldane Committee in 1918, is that the Cabinet determines government policy and co-ordinates the work of the various government departments. Whilst the Cabinet Manual continues to describe the Cabinet as the ‘ultimate decision making body of government’,1 it is clear that each government is to ‘determine the specific arrangements for collective decision-making’.2 This is because the idea that a weekly meeting, attended by ministers who are each responsible for the actions of their own government departments, can effectively operate as the decision-making body of government does not sit with the reality of the demands placed on modern government.
In recent times, increasingly important decisions have effectively been made outside of the Cabinet structure. For example, in 1997 the decision to make the Bank of England fully independent from government was made by the Prime Minister and Chancellor only after consulting the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary.
3. What effect did a coalition have on the conduct of government within the Cabinet?
The coalition formed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in 2010 saw a partial revival of Cabinet Government. The Conservatives, as the senior party in the coalition, had to ensure that the Liberal Democrats were constantly consulted on government policy. This was particularly the case with government departments that lacked a Liberal Democrat minister. To this end, Cabinet Committees – which are sub-committees of the Cabinet – met more frequently than was the case under the Labour government from 1997.
However, most disagreements on government policy between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were resolved more informally outside of the Cabinet structure. In particular, the ‘Quad’ of the Prime Minister and Chancellor (both Conservatives) met with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Deputy Prime Minister (both Liberal Democrats), who resolved the dispute. However, it was still sent to the relevant Cabinet Committee for final approval.
4. Have special advisers made a positive contribution to the conduct of government? In what way is their role different from a civil servant?
Although often criticised and occasionally involved in scandals, special advisers serve a useful role within government, supporting their minister. They can be described as the ‘alter ego’ of their minister, as they can explain to civil servants the thinking behind a government policy and provide a useful point of contact for interested parties or groups to discuss policies.
Special advisers are different to civil servants in that they serve a particular government minister and can offer political advice that a civil servant is unable to provide. Civil servants are politically impartial and fulfil a broader range of tasks beyond developing government policy. Most civil servants carry out and implement government policy by running government schemes, determining applications according to the criteria laid down in the government’s policy. Other civil servants are required to take on a more managerial role, running large projects such as introducing the new IT systems required to implement new government policy (for example the IT system required to support the introduction of Universal Credit, which is a major reform to the benefits system).
5. Is collective responsibility an onerous obligation placed on ministers?
At one level, collective responsibility places an obligation on all ministers to support government policy in public. This has the benefit of enabling government accountability to Parliament, as it allows Parliament to scrutinise government policy more effectively than if government policy was publically debated by ministers. However, there have been occasions when the Prime Minister has expressly set collective responsibility aside to allow ministers to campaign on different sides: during the referendums in 1975 and 2016 over the UK’s membership of the EU, and in the referendum held in 2011 over changing the electoral system to the alternative vote. Other limits on collective responsibility also include leaking, which allows a minister to express their concerns about a policy whilst maintaining the appearance of following collective responsibility. However, a minister’s disagreement with government policy could be so serious that they feel that they have no alternative other than to resign.
6. In what circumstances should a minister resign?
As discussed in Question 5, ministers have resigned when they have fundamentally disagreed with government policy. The resignations of Baroness Warsi and Iain Duncan-Smith are two relatively recent examples of this. However, most resignations tend to be for reasons of individual ministerial responsibility. The clearest rule is when ministers have misled Parliament. This most famously occurred when John Profumo misled the House of Commons over his affair with Christine Keeler in 1963.
However, the circumstances of when ministers should resign are difficult to establish from the precedents. Ministers are expected to be responsible for the activities of their department. For example, Lord Carrington resigned in 1982 over the failure of the Foreign Office to monitor Argentina’s intentions regarding the Falkland Islands, even though he was not personally responsible. However, ministers in more recent times have not resigned over equally significant failures within their departments, and other ministers – such as Stephen Byers and Estelle Morris – have resigned more for a series of failures than for any specific reason. Many resignations occur when the minister’s own personal conduct has fallen below the standard expected. This can (but not always) be due to sex scandals, for example with the case of David Mellor, or when the minister has entangled their own personal interests with their ministerial interests, as in the case of Liam Fox. If a breach of the Ministerial Code can be identified then it becomes highly likely that they will be forced to resign.
1 Cabinet Office, The Cabinet Manual (1st edn, Cabinet Office 2011) para 4.1.