NEVER has a Cabinet so broken faith with its duty of collective responsibility as the Conservative Cabinet since the 2017 election.
Hard though it is to recognise from its inaction over the last two years, the Cabinet is the ultimate decision-making body of the executive within the Westminster system of government. This is the interpretation of traditional constitutional theory as originally explained by the 19th century constitutionalist Walter Bagehot in his book The English Constitution. It was, he wrote, the ‘efficient secret’ of the British political system. No longer.
Its political and decision-making authority has been gradually reduced over several decades, encapsulated in the Spitting Image ‘Thatcher and the Vegetables’ skit.
But if constitutional theorists were worried about this level of usurpation of the Cabinet by ‘Prime Ministerial’ government, today they should be in a state of of total nervous collapse. The warring beasts of Thatcher’s cabinet at least acted collectively and put self interest to one side when they thought it was time for her to go.
Despite the unprecedented abuse of executive power of Mrs May’s Number Ten civil service cabal, not once has the Cabinet, as a body, called the PM to account. Though Mrs May’s operation has gone way beyond ‘kitchen cabinet’ government of the past, the actual Cabinet has done nothing but rehearse its collective failure to act to end her reign. From the moment they let her stay in office as leader after her disastrously misjudged 2017 General Election, which exposed all her limitations, their true colours, weak character traits and cynicism have been on show. The only thing they seem to be in accord over is the primacy of their individual interests and leadership ambitions over their collective responsibility.
There have been incremental resignations – David Davis and Boris Johnson did quit after the July 2018 Chequers putsch. Yet that came months after May sidelined her Secretary of State for Brexit and replaced him with a civil servant, something that should have been unacceptable to the Cabinet en masse. How then, given May’s betrayal of her Brexit promises, Andrea Leadsom, Michael Gove and Liam Fox did not follow is almost incomprehensible. Had they done so, would we be in the mess we are today?
Fast forward again to November 2018, to her bouncing the Cabinet into agreeing her WA, apparently with no time for preparation. On those grounds alone the Cabinet should have come together realising this was an executive abuse of power too far. Yes, Esther McVey and Dominc Raab resigned, but the big beasts stayed put, a pattern to repeat itself in resignations following Mrs May’s doomed second attempt in January this year to force the Commons into accepting an unacceptable deal.
Since then there has been nothing even remotely collective about the behaviour of the Cabinet. How Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Hands, given their clearly fervent Remain beliefs, can square being in an even nominally pro-Brexit government begs a question. Last month they revealed their true colours, openly defying government policy and threatening to vote against it in an astonishing display of hyper-individualism which would have been a sacking offence in any other administration.
Last weekend was another hyped up or failed coup – May might go as the pundits marched onto Marr. By Monday May was still there and somehow stronger. Then in a final act of shame the Cabinet sat by as the PM handed over direction of Brexit to Parliament.
For choosing inaction over action, for putting self interest above collective responsibility reserves special places on our Wall of Brexit shame for the Cabinet’s still non-resigning members.