13 January 2016

The forthcoming referendum on whether or not the UK should remain in the European Union has already raised a number of constitutional questions; the latest is the question of collective cabinet responsibility. Catherine Haddon looks at the issues and the lessons from 1975 in how it will be put into practice.

Having announced that ministers will be allowed to campaign against the government position on the EU, the Prime Minister this week set out guidelines for setting aside the tradition of collective responsibility.

Collective cabinet responsibility is about maintaining cohesion, presenting a collective position to Parliament and, in theory, collective decision-making. There are two aspects: unanimity in setting out the government’s position and voting together. Hence if a minister votes against the government they will usually resign or be sacked.

However, there are many ways in which collective responsibility falls down. Ministers leak about cabinet discussions or publicly indicate a difference of opinion. Likewise, prime ministers can offer free votes in parliament to forestall a divide. It can become a battle of wills: ministers can use the threat of resignation to force policy change; prime ministers use the threat of dismissal to force their will.

But it is rare that collective responsibility is set aside in advance, and this is known as ‘agreements to differ’. It was done in 1932 when the National coalition government agreed in advance that Liberal members could vote against the government on trade tariffs. The 2010 coalition government also found ways for both parties to set out different policy positions where they could not agree.

The most relevant comparison, which Cameron is clearly harkening back to, was Harold Wilson allowing dissenting cabinet members to campaign against remaining in the then European Economic Commission in 1975. Wilson allowed ministers to campaign against remaining in, but not when representing government in Parliament. Thus he sacked a junior minister who spoke against the government in the Commons. Other ministers found coded ways of setting out government position, reminding the House that they personally had different views.

Cameron seems to have anticipated this by allowing ministers to dissent in Parliament, but only on the specific EU referendum question, with all ‘other EU or EU-related business’ remaining subject to collective responsibility. Wilson offered the opportunity for ministers who dissented to pass PQs on European matters over to colleagues; Cameron makes no mention of this.

Cameron, like Wilson, is attempting to keep ministers in line until after a formal Cabinet ‘discussion’ on the negotiations. However, he also stated quite bluntly that if the re-negotiations are judged successful, he expects the government position be to remain in. Cameron therefore has first to manage the process of getting to that Cabinet discussion – again, like Wilson.

There will be other pressures when all of this is put into practice, not least the role of the civil service. Ministers campaigning to leave will be allowed to draw on the support of their special advisers. But the PM has ruled out any civil service support that is not in favour of the government’s position.

Cameron’s position is that the civil service must support the government, and if the official position is to remain, then that is a fair use of resources, (fuller restrictions will be in place during the campaign proper). Leave supporters argue this unfairly helps ministers who are campaigning to remain in.

Civil servants and ministers will have to be conscious of what is campaign-related support. Civil servants could find themselves between a rock and a hard place in whether or not they refuse help. Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, will therefore need to set out guidance on how this will be handled.

Some have asked whether this decision to set aside collective responsibility marks a significant break. Yet in 1932, parliament debated the concept and the constitutional position just as vigorously. Then, as under the recent coalition government, there was recognition that flexibility was needed in some circumstances.

The endurance of collective responsibility has been down to its continuing usefulness for party management and government coherence. How strongly it applies says more about successive prime ministers’ control over their ministers and party than its constitutional role.

The political difficulties in handling the referendum – for the Prime Minister, ministers and the Civil Service – will be more significant than any implications for the concept of collective responsibility more generally. But dissent, however well managed, always leaves a lingering sour taste.