Alberto Costa did an honourable thing – but it is right that he resigned
Collective responsibility must survive and be strictly adhered to if our system is to retain any credibility, writes Tony Grew
Poor Alberto Costa. He lost his job as PPS to the Scotland secretary for doing something that everyone thinks is a good idea, tabling an amendment that sought to ensure workers’ rights whatever the outcome of the negotiations. More than 130 MPs, from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Jeremy Corbyn, supported it. Surely this was something we could all get behind?
The fact that Costa is one of the most well-liked MPs only added to the general feeling that he was being targeted. Members were unhappy that he was being made a scape goat, that the PM was willing to in effect sack him while others plotted, briefed the media and sought to undermine her.
Why should the person or persons who regularly speak to journalists about who said what at Cabinet not get the same treatment? The answer is simple. Collective responsibility. It has been unevenly applied in this case, but it is still the cast iron rule in our democratic system.
In countries with parliamentary systems, there is a convention that all members of the government must publicly support all government decisions, even if they do not agree with them. Those that wish to dissent or object publicly must resign from their position or be sacked. It has a long tradition in British politics, even if it has become somewhat frayed under Mrs May’s premiership.
The concept that the government speaks as one was somewhat undermined by Sajid Javid’s memorable appearance before the home affairs select committee last week, leading to confusion about its position on the Costa amendment. The home secretary said he saw nothing wrong with it. Later, David Lidington told the House: “In view of the fact our political objectives are the same, the government will accept the amendment today.”
Costa’s amendment is rightly praised, and he was trying to do an honourable thing. But his resignation from ‘office’ was justified. For a start, he put down an amendment to a government motion. That’s not something a PPS is allowed to do. Should he wish to do so he or she should resign first. Talking to journalists, privately expressing frustration and discontent, and then seeing those comments appear in the newspapers under the guise of ‘friends of’ or ‘sources close to’ is an unpalatable part of how our politics operate. However, it actually serves an important purpose. Ministers can vent without declaring open warfare on their colleagues. Prime ministers have taken different approaches to it, but it remains at the heart of our system.
If we look back at the times when collective responsibly has been abandoned, it was never really a success. At Westminster, the doctrine applies to all members of the government, from members of the Cabinet down to PPSs.
In 1975 Harold Wilson called the first national referendum, on Britain’s membership of the EEC as it was then known. The country voted to stay in, but an unfortunate precedent had been set. Tony Blair’s decision to allow Claire Short to remain as international development secretary in 2003 despite her public opposition to the war in Iraq did not lead to her remaining loyal – she resigned.
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats just about managed to hold collective responsibility together during their five years in coalition, with the notable exceptions of reform of the House of Lords and the reductions in the number of MPs.
Historians will have much to consider in their examinations of the conduct of the government since 2015, and there will be entire PhDs written on David Cameron’s decision to suspend collective responsibly during the 2016 EU referendum. We have yet to hear Cameron’s rationale for allowing Cabinet ministers to openly oppose the government’s position, but no doubt unity will be among the factors he cites.
Unity is a chimeric concept at the best of times. Is unity better than clarity? Is unity more important than functioning government? Cabinets are rarely united, even when they are dealing with the most mundane of issues.
Alberto Costa’s sacking was an unfortunate moment for this government, but it will be quickly forgotten given the gravity of the times. The concept of collective responsibility must survive and be strictly adhered to if our system is to retain any credibility.
Theresa May has the toughest task any prime minister has faced since the second world war, but that task will come to an end, preferably sooner rather than later. Once the European issue is put to bed, let’s hope the prime minister can assert her desire for public unity more ruthlessly than she has done so thus far. The briefings will go on as they always have done, but we have been too close to anarchy for comfort in the past few months.
Chris Bryant is all right. The member for Rhondda has been sporting what looked like a horrific skull injury, but it turns out he’s just had a small amount of tissue removed and is on the mend. Bryant has explained, probably more times than he would like, that it’s quite difficult to remove tissue from the back of the skull without making quite a mess. The experience has led to MPs sharing all sorts of tales of medical issues with him. Perhaps he can find himself a new role as Parliament’s wise woman, though he would need to read up on his herbal remedies.
It was a three Weetabix start for a mundane Monday in the Commons. “Madam Deputy Speaker, have you ever considered what life was like before you became a Member of Parliament?” asked Therese Coffey. “Well, I never had a dream come true until I was elected to Parliament, but if I take myself back to when I was at high school, I have to admit that my love of chemistry started when I was very young.” Keen eared listeners will realise Ms Coffey was channelling the S Club 7. There’s more in Hansard for those who enjoy that sort of thing.
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