Ministerial responsibility – Damian Green and walking the plank
The Ministerial Code, which binds Government Ministers, cannot be treated lightly. Ministers who fall foul of it can expect to walk the plank in political terms. This week, it was with obvious regret that the Prime Minister Theresa May asked Damian Green for his resignation. Although never a politician who sought the limelight, he was First Secretary of State and effectively second in command.
The allegations against Mr Green were complicated, but two issues were central: 1) That he had misled the press in relation to allegations about pornography on work computers; and 2) That he had made inappropriate advances towards the journalist Kate Maltby. A Cabinet Office Inquiry concluded that the account which Ms Maltby had given was ‘plausible’. Equally, if not more damaging, was the first allegation. Mr Green’s statement that he had no knowledge about accusations of pornography being found on his office computer has now been conclusively disproved. The pornography in question was not of a criminal nature, and Mr Green still robustly denies having downloaded or accessed it. Nevertheless, the fact that he lied about being aware of the allegation was in itself sufficient reason for him to step down, in accordance of a constitutionally accepted understanding of Ministerial Responsibility.
The concept of Ministerial Responsibility in the UK is three-fold and taken extremely seriously. Firstly, there is the collective responsibility of the Cabinet (and arguably, the rest of the Government). This relates to decisions of the Executive, and means that ultimately a Government must stand or fall together. In practical terms, if the Prime Minister resigns all other Ministers follow suit; equally all Ministers must go if the Government loses a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. Collective responsibility also requires Cabinet and Government business to be kept confidential. If a Minister wants to speak out against the position of the Executive, on a particular issue, they must resign in order to do so. However, this collective facet of Ministerial Responsibility is not relevant in the present instance.
Secondly, there is the concept of the individual responsibility which ministers have for the policy and administration of their department. The controversy in relation to pornography on a work computer does touch upon this form of individual responsibility, as even if the pornography was downloaded and accessed by someone other than Damian Green, its very presence raises questions about governance and administration in the department he headed. It is true that following the Scott Inquiry into arms sales to Iraq, it is generally accepted that whilst Ministers are responsible for departmental policy, mistakes in the implementation of policy are not strictly speaking their fault. Green might quite reasonably assert that he was in no position to manage or monitor the professional behaviour of all departmental staff. Most people would probably agree with this stance, but there is a crucial difference between expecting a Minister to take responsibility for the behaviour of civil servants on the one hand, and requiring them to give an honest account of the state of their department on the other. Even though Green gave misleading statements to the press, rather than Parliament, his position necessarily became untenable when his mendacity was revealed.
Unquestionably, when his conduct is considered in the round, Damian Green failed to satisfy the requirements of a Minister in relation to personal conduct. His actions in lying, and causing discomfort via what were perceived as unwelcome sexual advances, were simply not compatible with the standards of behaviour required of a Government Minister in the United Kingdom.
It is worth noting that the strict constitutional duty to resign is completely different from the political pressures which may arise in cases like this. A minister is only constitutionally bound to resign where he or she has knowingly misled Parliament; and/or is personally to blame for a serious departmental error. Even other breaches of the Ministerial Code do not automatically trigger an obligation to resign. However, it was notable that an audibly saddened Jeremy Hunt MP was talking about Damian Green’s Ministerial career in the past tense in a national radio.
One positive note is that the sad saga has affirmed that this jurisdiction does set high standards for ministerial conduct, and that occupying high political office will not protect those who transgress.
Theresa May had to sack Damian Green (BBC News 21/12/17)
Damian Green sacked after misleading statements on porn claims (BBC News/21/12/17)
Damian Green sacked over porn cover-up as Theresa May suffers third Cabinet departure in two months (The Telegraph 21/12/17)