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Friday, 9 February 2007

9 February 2007

You may remember, not so long ago, a British political tradition known as “cabinet responsibility”. The idea was that if you were a minister, you were bound by Cabinet decisions. You didn’t disagree with your colleagues in public, even if you disagreed with them in private. If you found that too much of a problem, you resigned. Otherwise, you kept your mouth shut.

It was, in its way, quite a useful tradition. The Number 10 website explains it rather well: "William Pitt (1783-1801) established the right of the Prime Minister to ask ministers to resign. So the conventions of collective Cabinet responsibility and Prime Ministerial control developed. This enabled Ministers to stand together against Parliament under clear leadership.”

But why do I refer to it in the past tense? Have you missed some fundamental constitutional change, perhaps while you were out shovelling snow? Did something important happen while MPs were elbowing each other out of the way to get closer to Shilpa Shetty? (Note to readers recently arrived from Mars: Ms Shetty is a Bollywood film star who emerged victorious and unbowed from the horrors of the Big Brother house. I nearly got to interview her this week, but she pulled out at the last moment. I’ll get over the disappointment eventually …)

Apologies, I digress. The reason why I refer to the tradition of cabinet responsibility in the past tense is that it appears to have been discarded. It is, as Monty Python would have said, an ex-tradition. It has passed on, expired, ceased to be. It is no more.

And the explanation, I think, lies in the last two words of that quote from the Number 10 website: “clear leadership”. Is that what the current Cabinet enjoys? Is Tony Blair -- the first Prime Minister in history to have signaled months ahead of the event that he intends to stand down – in any position to offer “clear leadership”?

Consider: when Saddam Hussein was executed, Number 10 said nothing about the grisly manner of his dispatch. Other senior ministers did, however, and eventually Mr Blair did too. On climate change, Mr Blair said he didn’t think there was much point in cutting back on air travel. Gordon Brown openly disagreed.

Now, you may argue that these have nothing to do with Cabinet decisions, and that they do not, therefore, breach the tradition of cabinet responsibility. Strictly speaking, you would be right. But in the days of Margaret Thatcher – or even in the heyday of Tony Blair – if you wished to disagree with the boss, you either buttoned your lip or you quit. Even John Major, by no means the most dominant of recent prime ministers, was not openly contradicted by his Cabinet colleagues in the way that Mr Blair is now.

Ministers join protests against their own NHS reform plans. Ivan Lewis, the health minister responsible for maternity services, had an exceedingly uncomfortable time on The World Tonight last Tuesday, when Jackie Hardgrave pressed him about his opposition to the closure of maternity wards in his own constituency as part of a reform programme drawn up by his own department.

And poor Lord Goldsmith, who at the time of writing is still the attorney general, has had to launch a fierce counter-attack against some of his own colleagues (Lord Falconer and Harriet Harman) who have been talking openly about how his job needs to be redefined.

I’ll be honest with you: I much prefer open political debate to artificial unanimity. When ministers start sounding like speak-your-weight machines, you can be sure they don’t believe a word they’re saying. So don’t think I’m complaining, because I’m not. Far from it: the more, the merrier, say I. It’s good for democracy and good for journalists. Win-win.

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