CABINET OFFICE – COLLECTIVE MINISTERIAL RESPONSIBILITY – 13 February 2013
Dr Julian Lewis: Will my hon. Friend [Christopher Chope] express a view in his narrative on whether the principle of collective ministerial responsibility is being applied rather capriciously? I have in mind those Parliamentary Private Secretaries who had to resign their admittedly very junior Government positions because they were in favour of an in/out referendum on Europe, which is now such a mainstream policy that the Opposition are being taunted about whether they, too, subscribe to it. Does he know whether those people have been offered their jobs back and on what definition of collective responsibility they were deprived of them in the first place?
[Mr Chope: That is a telling point. All I know is that, for one Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Private Secretary who voted against the Government on tuition fees and consequently was forced to resign her position, it was only a few weeks before she was reinstated, and she has subsequently reached ministerial level. That is the rule that seems to apply to minority members of the coalition. As far as those on the Conservative side of the coalition are concerned, I have no information that suggests any Parliamentary Private Secretary who has been forced to resign has subsequently been reinstated, even if their reinstatement would coincide with a change of Government policy. On the face of it, double standards seem to be operating ...]
* * *
Dr Lewis: I am afraid that I am surprised that my hon. Friend has taken so long to realise that the creation of the coalition automatically meant the ripping up of the manifestos, except in so far as the manifesto policies were identical to those in the coalition agreement. Wherever they were not, all bets were off. That is what is so undemocratic about coalition politics. I have a question to put to my hon. Friend. Let us say that our starting point is what was in the coalition agreement, forgetting about the manifestos. What does he think should happen under collective ministerial responsibility if one of the parties to the coalition agreement decides that, after all, it is not going to abide by a particular policy to which it signed up? What sanction would the Prime Minister have, for example, if the Deputy Prime Minister decided to renege? Would he basically sack the entire Liberal Democrat party from the coalition? Can we live in hope of that?
[Mr Chope: I know that my hon. Friend and I come from a similar position on this issue; neither of us was an enthusiast of the coalition in the first place. I certainly went on record as saying that we would have been much better off having a minority Government untainted by the Liberal Democrats. To answer my hon. Friend, that is a question for the Prime Minister. He is solely responsible for collective ministerial responsibility. If he had chosen not to set aside collective ministerial responsibility in relation to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, it probably would have been the end of the coalition. He would have ordered the Deputy Prime Minister to resign on the basis that he had breached collective ministerial responsibility, along with all the other Liberal Democrat Ministers who had done so. Then he could either have carried on with a minority Conservative Government and given people such as my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) the opportunity to join the Government as a Minister. Or, if there had been a subsequent vote of no confidence, we would have had a general election.]
* * *
Dr Lewis: I thank the hon. Gentleman [Sir Nick Harvey] for his courtesy in giving way, as he always does. In a spirit of consensus, may I move away from the particular example to the general point? To form a coalition, there had to be a coalition agreement. Does he acknowledge that a code of ministerial collective responsibility should apply to the contents of that collective agreement? If so, what is it, and why will the Prime Minister not make it public?
[Sir Nick Harvey: It is certainly not for me to speak for the Prime Minister or the Government, because I am no longer a member of the Government. However, my hon. Friend is right: the question is about the nature of the agreement made. At the outset of a five-year term, an attempt is made to agree a coalition agreement that is to run for the five years. Such an agreement was novel territory in UK politics. We had not seen one for a long time. There were pressing economic circumstances in May 2010, as there still are today, and the judgment was made by both sides in the negotiation that speed was of the essence. However, if historians draw any lessons from this experience, they will surely come to the view that we may have something to learn from the experiences typical in continental Europe, where coalitions are negotiated over weeks, or even months. Agreements reached in a matter of a few short days, however comprehensive they seek to be, cannot by definition possibly take account of every twist or turn that current affairs or political life will take in the five years that follow. There are, of course, “Events, dear boy, events.” Governments will have to take a position on issues that they had not anticipated at the start of a five-year term; that is inevitable. Collective responsibility, in the sense in which we have understood it, can exist only where there is a collective view, a collective agreement and a collective decision between the two parts of the coalition that they will proceed in a certain way. Where something breaks down or has not been anticipated, or something new arises on which the two parties are unable to reach agreement, it is inevitable that we will not be able to apply a traditional doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility.]
* * *
Dr Lewis: For the sake of clarity, before the hon. Gentleman concludes his fascinating speech, will he explain whether he is really saying that, in a coalition, collective ministerial responsibility applies when both parts of the coalition agree, or in other words, when it is not needed, but not when they disagree, when it is needed?
[Sir Nick Harvey: I believe that it applies in all circumstances other than those where it has been concluded at the top that it does not apply. It clearly applies in the vast majority of cases; the instances where it does not apply are few and far between. It is a matter for ongoing judgment on the part of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister whether these occasional disagreements, which require collective responsibility to be set aside, are of such significance that the coalition’s overall functioning is at stake. I do not believe that anything we have seen to date brings us anywhere near the realm where anyone would rationally conclude that the coalition cannot continue or cannot work, but if such events became increasingly common, the question would arise.]
* * *
Dr Lewis: For the sake of fairness, I point out that I believe some Conservative colleagues who voted against the changes did so not because of the boundaries, as such, but because they did not approve of the reduction in the number of MPs with no corresponding reduction in the number of Ministers. In other words, they were concerned that the House of Commons would become less capable of keeping the Executive in check. I think that that was their reasoning.
[Mark Reckless: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and I make no criticism of Back Benchers who take that view. I voted for the motion of my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mr Walker) on precisely that issue. However, I did not consider that occasion to be the point at which to press the issue further....]
* * *
[Jonathan Lord: Does my hon. Friend (Mark Reckless) not think it ironic that the hon. Member for North Devon (Sir Nick Harvey) talked about the transparency of the coalition agreement? The most transparent part of that agreement was the deal for a referendum on the alternative vote, in exchange for fairer boundaries. That was the one promise, as my hon. Friend so eloquently said, that the Prime Minister gave to his parliamentary party. If we voted for an AV referendum, that could have affected the Conservative party adversely, reducing our potential to get a majority Government in future. We crawled through the Lobby on the absolute, cast-iron promise in the agreement and from our Prime Minister that it was in return for fairer boundaries.
Mark Reckless: My hon. Friend said he crawled through the Lobby, but I did not see that, because I abstained. I felt that we had been told by the Deputy Prime Minister that the Labour Party had offered him AV without a referendum. When my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) found out that that was not the case, first from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and then from the Deputy Prime Minister, it seemed to me that the deal we had done had been based on something that did not appear to hold water or –
Dr Lewis: Correspond with the facts.
Mr Reckless: I was trying to find the appropriate parliamentary language. I thank my hon. Friend for “correspond with the facts”, if that is allowable, Mr Bayley.]
* * *
Dr Lewis: The Liberal Democrat leader, one year after the formation of the coalition, gave an interview in the Observer. He was asked if he had done the right thing by going into coalition with the Conservatives. “Of course we did,” he said, “The arithmetic would not have allowed a coalition with Labour. What would the alternative have been? A minority Conservative Government, probably followed by an early election and a majority Conservative Government.” I could not have agreed with him more.