09 November 2017

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. 


I seem to remember that Gerald Kaufman wrote a book about 'How to be a Minister'. Could there not be a (regularly updated) book of common sense 'tips' for new ministers, together with someone (not sure exactly who) that they could address even 'basic' queries to? As a (former) teacher, I never thought it a waste of time telling mature students even very elementary things that one might have assumed they ought to know, but often they didn't seem to.

Many many moons ago when I was PS to a Treasury Minister, I was soundly rebuked by the Chancellor of the Exchequer's office for "losing my Minister", who had decided to go for a walk after taking lunch in the House of Commons. I'd been in the job about ten days, but I was clear ever after that while he was "in my care", I'd be watching him like a hawk. What he did when he was in his constituency or on his holidays was his business, provided he got his red boxes done. But in that dim and distant past, Ministers seemed to have a better grasp of the notion that they did their jobs and didn't trespass on to the responsibilities of others.
I believe this article is rather too kind on Ms Patel. Surely, someone with her intelligence would not have failed to realise that having meetings with senior Israeli politicians, up to and including their PM, without coordinating with the FCO and probably No 10 as well wasn't on? And even if she wasn't sure, she could have checked. I find my mobile phone works in most parts of the world.
It may just be the times we live in, but I recall Cabinets in the past of strong-minded, ambitious Ministers with strongly differing views who managed to avoid any issues of this sort. Over the years there seems to have been a general weakening of the concept of Cabinet loyalty and common responsibility (perhaps it was Dick Crossman who started the rot?) but we now seem to have reached a point where differing views have become so acrimonious and ambitions well-nigh uncontrollable that it takes a strong, popular PM to knock heads together and sack those who won't play by the rules.

When I was a private secretary informing the FCO of Ministerial visits abroad whether work or private was standard practice. So I am curious about the Priti Patel circumstances - did she not tell her private office of her plans to visit Israel or did they know and fail to tell the FCO, if so what led to that failure? Were they instructed not to tell or did they just forget to do it? The Better Government Initiative has proposed an extension of the right of Permanent Secretaries to ask for a written direction when Ministers wish to ignore proper processes or the Ministerial Code. Maybe this is an example of where such an innovation might have been helpful.

Incidentally I think Bernard Jenkins is implausibly supporting a fellow Brexiteer in suggesting this was down to inexperience. There is more than enough available advice in DIfD to tell her how she should have approached this all she had to do was ask.

As Nicola indicates, the lack is not likely to be guidance, both oral and written, but the inclination to read it, listen to it or take note of it, amidst the hurly burly of the rest of their lives. "How to be a Minister: a 21st Century Guide" by John Hutton and Leigh Lewis covers all the basics, as does the Cabinet Office's Handbook for Ministers. These are both more up to date than Gerald Kaufman's book, though there is still good advice in it too. But the last paragraph of Nicola's piece above sums it all up superbly neatly.