. 75
( 155 .)


tive responsibility is now being used to demand loyalty to decisions on
which Cabinet members were not consulted, let alone that were [not] reached
Whatever its utility, the convention of collective responsibility, if strictly
observed, exacts its price. By sti¬‚ing open dissent it contributes to secrecy in
government: questions of public importance which may be strongly contested
between ministers are not aired in a way that enables public opinion to be
expressed before decisions are reached “ the argument goes on behind the
screen of collective responsibility. Also, since the convention extends to all
ministers (not only those in the Cabinet) and even, if in a weaker form, to
parliamentary private secretaries to ministers, some 140 or more MPs on the
government side are expected to give unquali¬ed support to government
policies, as a condition of retaining their positions. In this way the convention
helps to strengthen the government™s control over Parliament.
In practice, however, Prime Ministers often ¬nd it impolitic to insist on
a strict observance of the obligations of ministerial solidarity. Indeed, on
a few occasions the convention has been formally suspended, with a publicly
announced ˜agreement to di¬er™ on some issue of importance. A famous
instance of this occurred in 1932. The National Government, constituted the
year before under Ramsay MacDonald to deal with a ¬nancial crisis, proposed
to introduce tari¬s; four Cabinet ministers, convinced free-traders, were unable
to agree. In the emergency it was considered important to keep the government
together, so a compromise was reached by which the dissenting ministers were
allowed to speak and vote against tari¬s, while remaining in the government.
This arrangement has been regarded with disfavour by most writers on the
constitution. Jennings described it as ˜an attempt to break down the party
system and to substitute government by individuals for government by politi-
cal principles™ (Cabinet Government (3rd edn 1959), p 281). In 1975 there was
again an agreement to di¬er, on the issue of United Kingdom membership of
the European Communities. The Labour Government had decided to submit
the question of continued membership (on the terms renegotiated by the
Government) to a referendum and to recommend the electorate to vote for
remaining in the Community. Seven Cabinet ministers who dissented from the
Government™s recommendation were allowed to oppose it in the referendum
381 Crown and government

House of Commons, 23 January 1975 (HC Deb vol 884, col 1746)
The Prime Minister (Mr Harold Wilson): . . . When the outcome of renegotiation is known,
the Government will decide upon their own recommendation to the country, whether for
continued membership of the Community on the basis of the renegotiated terms, or for
withdrawal, and will announce their decision to the House in due course . . .
The circumstances of this referendum are unique, and the issue to be decided is one on
which strong views have long been held which cross party lines. The Cabinet has, therefore,
decided that, if when the time comes there are members of the Government, including
members of the Cabinet, who do not feel able to accept and support the Government™s rec-
ommendation, whatever it may be, they will, once the recommendation has been announced,
be free to support and speak in favour of a different conclusion in the referendum campaign.

House of Commons, 7 April 1975 (HC Deb vol 889, col 351 W)
The Prime Minister: In accordance with my statement in the House on 23rd January last, those
Ministers who do not agree with the Government™s recommendation in favour of continued
membership of the European Community are, in the unique circumstances of the referendum,
now free to advocate a different view during the referendum campaign in the country.
This freedom does not extend to parliamentary proceedings and official business.
Government business in Parliament will continue to be handled by all Ministers in accordance
with Government policy. Ministers responsible for European aspects of Government business
who themselves differ from the Government™s recommendation on membership of the
European Community will state the Government™s position and will not be drawn into making
points against the Government recommendation. Wherever necessary Questions will be
transferred to other Ministers. At meetings of the Council of Ministers of the European
Community and at other Community meetings, the United Kingdom position in all fields will
continue to reflect Government policy.
I have asked all Ministers to make their contributions to the public campaign in terms of
issues, to avoid personalising or trivialising the argument, and not to allow themselves to
appear in direct confrontation, on the same platform or programme, with another Minister
who takes a different view on the Government recommendation.

This arrangement helped to keep the Government together. Was it also in the
public interest?
In 1977 collective responsibility was again suspended, to allow dissenting
ministers to vote against the principle of the European Assembly Elections Bill “
which provided, in accordance with government policy, for direct elections to
the European Parliament “ at its second reading. Questioned in the House of
Commons about collective responsibility the Prime Minister (Mr Callaghan)
replied (HC Deb vol 933, col 552, 16 June 1977):

I certainly think that the doctrine should apply, except in cases where I announce that it
does not.
382 British Government and the Constitution

This was brusquely said, and has been cited as a cynical disregard of con-
stitutional proprieties. But we must ask with G Marshall (Constitutional
Conventions: The Rules and Forms of Political Accountability (1986), p 8)
whether it does ˜represent a breach of any constitutional duty to the House of
Commons if freedom to speak or vote against cabinet policy [is] willingly con-
ceded by the Cabinet to individual Cabinet Ministers?™
Formal suspensions of the convention have been rare and controversial; a
more commonplace and frequent mitigation of collective responsibility is pro-
vided by the ˜unattributable ministerial leak™.

Patrick Gordon Walker, The Cabinet (rev edn 1972), pp 33“4, 35, 38“9

The unattributable leak involves the disclosure of . . . matters that are secret only because
of the doctrine of collective responsibility “ such as the subject of Cabinet discussion, Cabinet
decisions, views assigned to different Ministers and the like. The leak gives information
known only to members of the Cabinet; being unattributable, it does not breach the doctrine
that Ministers do not attack one another in public.
An element of concealment was inherent in the very concept of collective responsibility.
The doctrine that the Cabinet must appear to be united presupposed Cabinet divisions that
had not been reconciled. Ministers must in the nature of things have differences but they
must outwardly appear to have none. Collective responsibility must therefore to some extent
be a mask worn by the Cabinet.
The self-same conditions of mass democracy that gave rise to collective responsibility
produced the unattributable leak. The maintenance of secrecy imposed by the doctrine
became intolerable. This for two main reasons.
First, Ministers were political creatures living in a political world. As party leaders they
accepted the need for the doctrine of collective responsibility: but as political creatures they
felt it sometimes necessary to let their political views be unofficially known.
Secondly, the Press began to try and tear away the mask from the face of the Cabinet:
their readers became increasingly interested in being informed about ˜secrets™ that were felt
to be of a political and not a security nature. . . . From [the 1880s] the unattributable leak
became a feature of the Cabinet system. The main motives for leaks by Ministers became
the desire to inform “ or to mislead “ their followers in the Parliamentary party about the
stand they had taken in the Cabinet on a particular issue; or the attempt to mobilize party
or public opinion behind a view that was being argued in Cabinet. . . .
Thus the doctrine of collective responsibility and the unattributable leak grew up side by
side as an inevitable feature of the Cabinet in a mass two-party system. In every Cabinet the
leak will be deplored and condemned; but it is paradoxically necessary to the preservation of
the doctrine of collective responsibility. It is the mechanism by which the doctrine of collective
responsibility is reconciled with political reality. The unattributable leak is itself a recognition
and acceptance of the doctrine that members of a Cabinet do not disagree in public.

Brian Harrison (The Transformation of British Politics 1860“1995 (1996), p 291)
remarks that during the Thatcher Cabinets ˜a competitive leaking to the press
was part of the weaponry deployed by “wets” and “dries” in their battle for
383 Crown and government

control over policy™. What Harrison calls ˜the art of competitive leaking™ con-
tinued to be displayed in Mr Major™s Government, which is said to have become
˜as leaky as a sieve™ (Kenneth Clarke, cited by Peter Hennessy, The Prime Minister
(2000), p 445), and has not diminished since Labour took o¬ce in 1997.
Leaking is practised by Prime Ministers as well as by other members of the
Cabinet. If a necessary palliative of collective responsibility, it makes little con-
tribution to open government: leaked information is notoriously unreliable
and at its worst the practice is a technique for misleading the public (see
M Cockerell, P Hennessy and D Walker, Sources Close to the Prime Minister
(1984), ch 7). AP Tant (˜ “Leaks” and the nature of British government™ (1995)
66 Political Quarterly 197) regards leaks as a re¬‚ection of the pathology of
British government, which he sees as being de¬cient in both responsibility
and e¬ciency. Tant distinguishes the ˜deliberate unauthorised™ leak and the
˜authorised but unacknowledged™ leak. The former kind, while ˜constitutionally
irresponsible™, may sometimes be in the national interest: Tant gives the
example of information about the inadequacy of Britain™s air defences leaked to
Winston Churchill in the 1930s. Of the latter kind Tant writes:

It is a well known and accepted part of British political life that from time to time political
adversaries use ˜authorised but unacknowledged™ leaks to discredit or undermine each
other™s policies. Equally, government uses this strategy to ˜fly kites™ “ in instances where
a potentially contentious policy proposal may find its way into the public arena first via
a leak. If the public reaction is particularly hostile, government is able to argue that it never
had any intention of implementing this particular policy; it was merely part of the discussions
surrounding possible options. If, on the other hand, there is a muted response, government
knows it is relatively ˜safe™ to proceed with the policy. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that
this tactic in fact compromises the principles of responsible government.

It happens from time to time that a minister ¬‚outs convention by disagreeing
in public with government policy. This may result in his or her dismissal. When
a junior naval minister made a speech in 1981 criticising the Government™s pro-
posed reduction of the surface ¬‚eet he was promptly dismissed by Mrs
Thatcher, who said, ˜Ministers should ¬ght departmental battles within the
Department and not outside™ (HC Deb vol 5, col 151, 19 May 1981). But some-
times the breach results in nothing more than a prime-ministerial rebuke or is
simply overlooked. In 1974 after a Minister of State had publicly criticised a gov-
ernment decision to complete the delivery of warships to a tyrannical regime in
Chile, the Prime Minister (Mr Harold Wilson) was asked in the House of
Commons to say what his policy was with regard to collective responsibility. He
replied (HC Deb vol 873, col 1103, 14 May 1974):

All members of the Government share a collective responsibility for the policies of Her
Majesty™s Government. I have recently reminded my right hon and hon Friends in the admin-
istration that, where any conflict of loyalties arises, the principle of the collective responsi-
bility of the Government is absolute and overriding in all circumstances.
384 British Government and the Constitution

Dissenting ministers sometimes choose to resign in emphatic repudiation of
government policy, and in these instances we seem to see the convention of
collective responsibility dramatically con¬rmed. When Mr Ian Gow, a Minister
of State at the Treasury, resigned in protest against the signing of the Anglo-Irish
Agreement in November 1985, he said in his resignation letter: ˜I cannot
support this change of policy; it follows that I cannot remain in your
Government™. Instances of resignation in dissent from government policy have
been given above, but resignation (like dismissal) is by no means automatic in
the event of serious policy disagreement or even an open breach of ministerial
solidarity and is often a matter of political calculation; in this respect it appears
that we are dealing with an ˜optional convention™ (P Madgwick in V Herman
and J Alt (eds), Cabinet Studies: A Reader (1975), p 98).
Dissent among Cabinet ministers is nowadays often revealed to the public in
one way or another, and ministerial solidarity is less strictly insisted upon than
formerly. The dilution of the convention has alarmed some observers. Nevil
Johnson discerned a ˜retreat into constitutional anarchy™ if collective responsibil-
ity could at any time be waived by the Prime Minister, and expressed the sombre
belief that ˜our constitution has atrophied to a point at which it expresses only
one principle, namely that any rule or convention thought to be part of it may be
suspended or evaded if the government of the day believes that this is required
for the sake of holding together the party in power™ (letter to The Times, 22 June
1977). But an in¬‚exible insistence on ministerial solidarity is not manifestly for
the public good, and its relaxation might contribute to more open and honest
government and better informed public debate. Political controversy often takes
place within rather than between the political parties “ especially when there is
a consensus on particular policies between the party leaderships “ and collective
responsibility may con¬ne or even e¬ectively suppress this necessary con¬‚ict.

Anthony Wedgwood Benn, ˜Democracy in the age of science™ (1979)
50 Political Quarterly 7, 18“19
[T]he constitutional convention of collective Cabinet responsibility which is thought to be
central to the working of the British Constitution has considerable implications for secrecy of
government. Under this doctrine the myth of Cabinet unity on all matters discussed is fos-
tered. Cabinets are, of course, rarely united in their views. Indeed, were it so there would
be no Cabinet discussion at all. . . .
Common sense and ordinary personal loyalty must require defeated minorities to accept
the majority decision and to explain and defend it. But there is no reason whatsoever why
this necessary and sensible principle should be extended to the necessarily false pretence
that no alternative policies were considered, no real debate took place, and that everyone
present was convinced of the merits of the majority view “ as distinct from accepting that it
was the majority view and that as such it should be supported. The narrow interpretation of
collective Cabinet responsibility denies citizens essential knowledge of the processes by
which their government reaches its decisions.
385 Crown and government

(b) The Prime Minister
The o¬ce of Prime Minister is the creation of convention, and the role and
powers of the Prime Minister still depend mainly on convention and political
circumstances. In the course of a reply to a parliamentary question about the
extent of his powers, the incumbent Prime Minister (Mr Tony Blair) said on
15 October 2001:

The Prime Minister™s roles as the head of Her Majesty™s Government, her principal adviser
and as Chairman of the Cabinet are not . . . defined in legislation. These roles, including the
exercise of powers under the royal prerogative, have evolved over many years, drawing on
convention and usage, and it is not possible precisely to define them.

Relatively few powers are vested in the Prime Minister by statute “ the o¬ce is
barely acknowledged in legislation “ but like other ministers, although with a pre-
eminent authority, the Prime Minister may make use of prerogative powers
which have devolved upon ministers or are exercised by the Sovereign only on
ministerial advice. A number of public appointments are made directly by the
Prime Minister (eg, of the Interception of Communications Commissioner,
the Intelligence Services Commissioner and Surveillance Commissioners: see the
Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, ss 57(1), 59(1) and the Police Act
1997, s 91(1)) and many others are made by the Sovereign on prime-ministerial
advice: these latter include government ministers, the Cabinet Secretary, the Civil
Service Commissioners and the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Other ministers
will often be expected to consult the Prime Minister about the exercise of powers
vested in them, especially if public controversy is likely to be caused.
It now appears to be a ¬rm convention that the Prime Minister should be
a member of the House of Commons. The last peer to hold the o¬ce was Lord
Salisbury (from 1895 to 1902); the Earl of Home disclaimed his peerage
and sought election to the House of Commons when he became Prime Minister
in 1963.
Since the person appointed by the Sovereign as Prime Minister will, as we
have seen, normally be the leader of one or other of the political parties, eligi-
bility for the o¬ce of Prime Minister is in practice determined by the election
procedures of the parties. Indeed the Labour Party in 1957 formally adopted the
principle that a Labour Prime Minister must have been elected as leader of
the party. Before the June 1983 election the Liberal and Social Democrat parties
jointly nominated a Prime Minister-designate (Mr Roy Jenkins) in case the
Alliance should have the strongest claim to provide the Prime Minister.
The Prime Minister customarily holds the titular position of First Lord of the
Treasury, and since 1968 has held the o¬ce of Minister for the Civil Service, with
another minister exercising day-to-day responsibility. Exceptionally the Prime
Minister has taken control of a major department, as when Mr Harold Wilson
assumed overall responsibility for the Department of Economic A¬airs from
386 British Government and the Constitution


. 75
( 155 .)