Many people believe that Boris Johnson should have sacked his Home Secretary, Priti Patel, for breaching the ministerial code. Certainly the Prime Minister’s personal advisor Sir Anthony Allan clearly thought so by resigning to signal the futility of his role. A question seldom asked is: Should Priti Patel have resigned as this was clearly another option?
Ministers seldom resign these days and those that do, resort to it as a face-saving alternative to an imminent sacking. You have to go back a long way to find a government minister who took personal responsibility for their actions and resigned as an admission of culpability. One thinks of Lord Carrington the Foreign Secretary who resigned three days after the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands in 1982. He believed his department should have seen it coming and was guilty of neglect.
In March 2003 Robin Cook, Foreign Secretary in a Tony Blair government , resigned at what he perceived as the illegality of war in Iraq. He felt strongly enough that Britain should not have joined the US in attacking Iraq as there were insufficient legal grounds. The late Robin Cook believed that he could not serve a government that would engage in an illegal war. This was a principle that only one other member of the cabinet, Claire Short, shared through resignation.
Ministers tend not to resign these days, but an astonishing number of civil servants do and it worth looking at the roll call over the past six months; six permanent secretaries have resigned since February 2020 in what some regimes would call a ‘purge’. Philp Rutnam, Home Office; Simon McDonald, Foreign Office; Mark Sedwill, Cabinet Office; Richard Heaton, Ministry of Justice; Jonathan Slater, Education; Jonathan Jones, Legal department. While some exits were more amicable than others, the last one is the most significant as it was on a point of principle.
Jonathan Jones resigned because he could not endorse the government intention to breach an international treaty through the Internal Market bill. Although the government inevitably found some lawyers to defend the indefensible, the head of the government legal department considered the concept of reneging on an international treaty so distasteful he resigned. Note no minister did, although one admitted in the Commons that the bill ‘would break international law in a limited way’.
So why the purge of top civil servants by the current government? It does seem to be government policy to shake up the civil service through showing utter contempt while seeking to pass blame from ministers to officials. This started before the Johnson government, but it breaks the long established rule that civil servants advise and minsters decide. The responsibility of ministers is that they take ownership of policy and thus both kudos when successful, and blame when it fails. Shifting the blame to civil servants is not how government should operate, yet this one does: six for six!
Leadership requires responsibility and ministers have a code specifically to set out the kind of behaviour that is acceptable in public office. Corruption and incompetence should be resignation matters, but are sadly not so. It is left to the civil servants who have spent a life-time in public service to leave office for the sake of political careerist ideologues. It is a national disgrace but the tone is set from the top.