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What Priti Patel's resignation reveals about being a minister

While it’s right that Priti Patel has taken responsibility for her actions, Nicola Hughes argues that many ministers continue to be undone by the most basic mistakes.

After a day of speculation and the bizarre spectacle of the Twitterati tracking her flight home from Kenya, the International Development Secretary Priti Patel has resigned. A sudden change of minister is a big deal for a government department. The Department for International Development (DfID) will now have to handle a change of style and potentially changes to policy as they welcome the next Secretary of State. 

Patel got into trouble by failing to reveal planned meetings with foreign officials. She is certainly not the first minister to be undone by such a scandal. Why do ministers make such basic mistakes? 

Ministers don’t have enough support and advice

The Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Bernard Jenkin, suggests that Patel’s error stemmed from inexperience and that she was not well advised by her civil servants. This seems unlikely. Private offices are well versed in the Ministerial Code and see their role as guarding their ministers, and by extension the department, from accusations of impropriety. If anything, ministers get frustrated at what they see as over-cautious advice. 

We do not know whether Patel’s private office knew of her plans or what they advised if they did. Ultimately, the error is Patel’s own and she has taken responsibility.

Jenkin is right in his broader point, however:

“...a lot of ministers are not experienced in high office when they take on these roles and they need a lot of support.”

As our Ministers Reflect series starkly reveals, most ministers are appointed to their jobs with “no training beforehand, no training after, no support after”. It’s sink or swim for ministers who have little induction or handover period, even if they are brand new to government.

The Institute for Government helps address this gap through our professional development programme for politicians.

Badly enforced code

The Ministerial Code is set by each prime minister with the support of an adviser on ministers’ interests. But ultimately the prime minister is the final judge on breaches and punishment. The Cabinet Office’s Propriety and Ethics Team gives new ministers the ‘dos and don’ts’ talk. When breaches of a code occur, it is the Cabinet Secretary - supported by this team – who will investigate. 

The Ministerial Code is as dry as it sounds and probably not at the top of ministers’ minds in the busy day-to-day reality of government. What’s more, there is only so far a code can go. Ministers need to exercise some common sense and to understand the importance of the principles that lie behind a code’s explicit rules: ‘if in doubt, don’t’.

Not every circumstance can be covered by a written rule book. Sexual harassment, for example, isn’t covered in the Ministerial Code: but it’s shocking that it should need to be spelled out. Clearly media and public opinion also influence a prime minister’s decision as to what is and isn’t a sackable offence, as well as the letter of a code. 

Poor communication channels with Number 10

There is still some confusion about what exactly Number 10 did and did not know - and when - about Patel’s dealings with Israel. But the breakdown in communications speaks to larger problems about relations between Number 10 and government departments.

This issue was raised in a large number of our nearly 80 Ministers Reflect interviews with former Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat ministers. Nicky Morgan MP, for example, explained how little she saw of then Prime Minister David Cameron during her tenure as Education Secretary, saying:

“…maybe more regular meetings would help in terms of the central control. If they knew what you were doing, then it would not be a surprise when somebody goes and announces it.”

Better support, better codes and better communication can help ministers avoid career-ending blunders. Above all, they need to take responsibility for their own actions, to adhere to basic standards of honesty and decency and avoid anything that might seem like an ethical grey area without taking proper advice. 


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