Cabinet Collective Responsibility is the idea that government ministers all publicly support whatever decisions are made by the cabinet, it provides a united front and paints the image of a strong and stable government – one without internal factions and rivalries. Whatever your personal objections you are expected as a Cabinet minister to publicly support all government decisions, or else you are obliged to resign, for example Mike Crockart and Jenny Willott resigned as Junior ministers over their disagreement with the Coalition tuition fees legislation. Yet despite this convention we have seen visible splits appear in the Conservative party that have plagued the party for decades, such as between the Europhiles and the Euroskeptics of the party.
That division was illustrated during the Brexit campaign, Cameron suspended collective responsibility over the Brexit campaign and the party has yet to truly reconcile. The united front that was present during May’s honeymoon period has slipped away, replaced by whispers of leadership challenges and a weak and wobbly PM.
Despite this the Conservatives still hold all the cards, the DUP deal may be unpopular, but they have formed a government which is secure for now; the confidence exuded in parliament is not that of a defeated party. There is a two year parliamentary session and a five year term to come aside from the intervention of a major catalyst or half a dozen bi-elections and defections – so a second election is far from inevitable.
The Conservative’s strong position is being undermined by the constant bickering and press leaks surrounding issues like public sector pay and their approach to the Brexit negotiations. They have total control over the negotiations and yet can’t seem to provide a united front. As the only party present, they are not being undermined by anyone other than themselves, Emily Thornberry laid into the Tories when she stood in last week during PMQs over their poor organisation surrounding the negotiations:
“Isn’t the truth now that we have a no deal option on the table, but they won’t tell us what that means, they’ve got contingency plans, but they won’t let the public see them. We’ve got a Chancellor demanding transitional arrangements, which a no deal option makes impossible, we’ve got a Foreign Secretary making it up as he goes along, we’ve got a Brexit Secretary who is so used to over-ruling his colleagues he has started over-ruling himself, and we have a Prime Minister so bereft of ideas that she has started putting suggestion boxes around parliament.”
It was a damning assessment and, regardless of your stance on Brexit, it is difficult to argue that the current levels of confusion and chaos that surround the issue are in any way helpful for the future of the United Kingdom. Reports from the Evening Standard this week discussed how,
“Cabinet tensions over Brexit intensified today as Tory sources accused Boris Johnson and Michael Gove of trying to force Theresa May into storming out of Brexit talks. An insider told the Standard the pair were using the row over Britain’s divorce payment to the EU to bring talks “crashing to a halt” to engineer a “hard Brexit” with no transitional deal. “They want a situation where the EU just say ‘enough is enough’ and show us the door,” claimed the source.”
On the other side of the argument, Phillip Hammond and Amber Rudd has been reportedly pushing for a “soft landing” and a “jobs first” Brexit. This sort of talk was played down during the campaign, with “No deal is better than a bad deal” taking centre stage as one of the main Tory soundbites, but since the relatively disappointing election result, the moderate “soft Brexit” voices are making themselves heard. And this is not the only issue over which collective cabinet responsibility seems to be fading, the issue of public sector pay and austerity have caused massive rift’s between senior ministers.
Leaked comments from Chancellor Phillip Hammond declaring that that public sector workers are “overpaid” was corroborated by numerous sources within the cabinet and caused huge backlash – Hammond eventually appeared on the Andrew Marr show to defend his comments, claiming that this “noise” came from people who were “not happy” with his agenda of “ensuring that we achieve a Brexit which is focused on protecting our economy, jobs, and making sure we can have continued rising living standards in the future.”
Combine this with further leaks over comments about women train drivers, accusations that Rupert Murdoch asked Theresa May to reappoint Michael Gove to the cabinet or face a bad press in his newspaper titles, and the endless rumours of a Tory plot to displace Theresa May with David Davis and you see a government bleeding from it’s own stab wounds. Theresa May has been forced to order ministers to stop leaking details of cabinet discussions as she attempts to regain control over her party.
The 1922 back-bench committee has said that they support her firing of cabinet ministers if they refuse to get into line and Ian Duncan Smith spoke recently about how the Tory back-benches have no appetite for a fresh leadership challenge, that they want to get on with the job in hand.
Theresa May looks like a weak Prime Minister right now, with a razor thin majority and a fighting cabinet, but almost every issue that they are currently facing is self-imposed. Collective cabinet responsibility is meant to help the government show a strong united front, but this self-sabotage is ruining their chances of successfully negotiating Brexit and providing a stable government for the next five years. The Conservatives need to agree on a message and stick to it, or they face the electoral fate in the next election that they had predicted for Corbyn’s Labour earlier this year.