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  • Edexcel Component 2: 3.2 The concept of individual ministerial responsibility

  • AQA Component 1: The Prime Minister and cabinet: individual and collective responsibility

Background: what you need to know 

Individual ministerial responsibility is a long-established principle of the UK’s unwritten constitution: when a minister gets it wrong, whether it is a major policy failure, financial scandal or personal impropriety, the expectation is that he or she should resign. A classic example was Thomas Dugdale, Minister of Agriculture, who resigned in 1954 because officials in his department had acted improperly over failure to return land at Crichel Down in Dorset which had been requisitioned in wartime.

Since then, some ministers have been more reluctant to go quickly when their conduct has been exposed, leaving it to the prime minister to fire them. So Theresa May had to sack Priti Patel as Minister for Overseas Development in 2017 for having twelve meetings with Israeli officials without the knowledge or approval of the Foreign Office. Two years later, May also dismissed Gavin Williamson as Defence Secretary for allegedly leaking details of what was discussed at a National Security Council meeting.

Significantly, as soon as he succeeded May as prime minister, Boris Johnson brought both of these disgraced ministers back into the Cabinet and has since been tenacious in hanging on to ministers or advisers who have got into difficulties, including Patel over bullying allegations and Williamson over the 2020 exam results fiasco. “I consider the matter closed” is in danger of becoming Johnson’s catchphrase. As this article observes, he “seemed determined to hold on to Hancock, in spite of the health secretary admitting he had broken social distancing guidance by kissing his adviser Gina Coladangelo in his Whitehall office in May”.

Hancock himself attempted to ride out the storm for a day and a half with an apology before realising that he could not continue to head up the UK’s response to the pandemic when he had been caught on camera breaking the guidelines with “an adviser whom he put on the public payroll”.

Perhaps, despite the prime minister’s desire to consider it closed, individual ministerial responsibility is making a comeback.

Click to read the articles below and then answer the questions:

Matt Hancock resigns as UK health secretary

Question in the style of AQA Politics Paper 1

  • ‘The convention of individual ministerial responsibility is no longer a working part of the UK’s unwritten constitution.’ Analyse and evaluate this statement. [25 marks]

Question in the style of Edexcel Politics Paper 1

  • Evaluate the view that the convention of individual ministerial responsibility is no longer a working part of the UK’s unwritten constitution. You must consider this view and the alternative to this view in a balanced way. [30 marks]

Mark Rathbone

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