There are lots of different and often contradictory reports about how the Prime Minister operates. Some say that she relies on advisors, while others say that she makes decisions unilaterally with little consideration for the implications of those decisions. Some say that she has a plan for everything, other reports suggest that she doesn’t have a plan. There is one constant, though: virtually every report about the inner workings of number 10 suggests that the Prime Minister consistently undermines the principle of collective cabinet responsibility and side-lines either key member of or the entire cabinet in decision making.
A constitutional scholar might point to the steady erasure of collective responsibility in explaining this: Thatcher and to some extent Blair had their moments, and at some controversial junctures tried to side-step cabinet. The constitutional idea that a minister should resign for the failures of their department seems to have died long ago, also; ministerial resignations today are usually down to personal failures, political manoeuvring, or political failures, where departmental failures are often blamed on civil servants or aides.
As such, this kind of disregard for the historic checks on a Prime Minister’s or Government’s power is not a shock. We have heard cries of elective dictatorship before, and we have seen our campaigns (through debates and personalities) and our outlook become more Presidential.
What we have never seen before is a Prime Minister without a majority attempting to peruse a path like this. We haven’t seen a Prime Minister without a large majority attempt it before. This is for good reason: the smaller a Prime Minister’s majority, and the less popular they are within their own party, the less their ability to re-shuffle cabinet in a way so as to ensure they receive support for their measures. In Theresa May’s case, she has been entirely unable to remove even those seen as plotting to challenge her for the leadership in the short term and those who she severely disagrees with on key issues.
We have therefore seen a leader trying to hold her cabinet together by side-lining them as much as possible on almost all issues. We have also seen a group of cabinet members either plotting their own leadership runs or in severe disagreement with the Prime Minister tarnished with the brush of collective responsibility without having had any input in the decision making process.
The strains that this has put on the cabinet, even since the election, are already showing. In normal times, criticising a cabinet decision will get a cabinet member fired- if they agreed or disagreed, they are collectively responsible for the decision.
Over the last few days, cabinet members have been lining up to criticise the government’s decision on the public sector pay freeze, including criticising decisions that technically haven’t yet been made (or rather haven’t yet been publicly made). They feel safe both undermining the principle of collective responsibility and using the press as a weapon to try to change the decisions that the government is set to make.
This collective responsibility was waived by Harold Wilson for the duration of the 1975 European Referendum, to hold together his parliamentary party with a razor thin majority, and to hold together the wider party members who had campaigned for a referendum only a year previously. The same happened in 2016, with David Cameron in an alarmingly similar position. Both of those Prime Ministers were able to do so without making the government position- in both cases to remain a member of the European Union- meaningless. In this case, the government position well be- there is now a seemingly insurmountable pressure on the government to abandon the public sector pay cap, caused by cabinet ministers in the press.
This shows us two key things. Firstly, the Prime Minister still lacks the willingness and ability to properly consult her cabinet (including both the pro and anti hard Brexit wings), even now that her personal mandate has all but vanished and dialogue has became essential for her political survival. Secondly, the Prime Minister is too weak to enforce some of the basic norms in government, including but not limited to ensuring that collective responsibility is upheld to at least some degree: not only are cabinet members criticising cabinet decisions, they are doing so openly and on television in a clear display of the lack of May’s authority. Both her inability to consult the cabinet and her political weakness mean that, slowly, her government is collapsing.
I’m sure we can also spot who amongst those cabinet members that have spoken against the government is doing so to actively undermine May and line themselves up for a leadership bid. Boris Johnson, and perhaps Michael Gove, are on clear war footing, and the Prime Minister is too weak to respond. Many of these cabinet ministers would have been compelled to resign themselves at several points during their own political careers, should we have had stronger governments and a stronger constitution.