The theory of collective responsibility in government is well studied – that all ministers should publicly support a cabinet decision, even if they privately disagree, or resign. However, this is a convention – an unwritten rule usually adhered to – and therefore able to be broken. There have been splits in the Cabinet in the past; a quick Google search of ‘Tony Blair Cabinet splits’ brings up stories of Iraq, gay marriage and smoking amongst others. However, under the Coalition Government, with two different parties forming Cabinet, the strength of this convention has come under scrutiny.
Two examples from this week provide evidence that the convention is both weaker and yet intact. The weakness of this convention is displayed in the Telegraph article discussing a split in the Cabinet over cigarette packaging. The fact that this split is being so openly discussed suggests that the convention of collective responsibility has taken a blow under Coalition Government. However, it is worth noting that the critic in this case is Philip Hammond – a Conservative. Therefore, his criticism of David Cameron’s policy is difficult to attribute directly to the Coalition when they are from the same party! Certainly, this could actually be seen as a challenge to Cameron’s (weak?) leadership from factions within his party rather than anything to do with collective responsibility. Nonetheless, it could be argued that the weakening of this convention by having a Coalition has allowed other cracks to occur, such as this one.
On the other hand, despite her public statement that she was going to stay, Tessa Munt (Parliamentary Aide to Vince Cable) has resigned after voicing her opposition to, and voting against the government on, Fracking. This is a useful story from the BBC as they explicitly reference collective responsibility and the fact that she planned on defying the convention by staying on. Yet, she has now resigned; this would seem to suggest that some amount of pressure has been applied on her to leave. In this case then, it would suggest that the convention of collective responsibility still holds some weight, as ultimately, she resigned.
A final word of warning – be wary of attributing weakness to the Coalition, simply because they are a coalition: it must be more reasoned out than this. Students frequently fall into this trap, when actually the Coalition have proved a reasonably strong and stable government.