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The breakdown in collective responsibility is creating public bewilderment

7th July 2017

Theresa May’s minority Government made passing the Queens Speech, widely trailed to be her first stumbling block, look relatively simple. Although the Labour Party brought about concessions on the issue of abortion rights for Northern Irish nationals, the Government won the key votes in the Commons on Brexit and the future legislative programme with majorities of 26 votes and 14 votes respectively. The Government Whips - and the Conservative Party’s infamous knack for holding on to power – can largely be credited with this unity in the voting lobbies. However, away from the voting lobbies, unity is in short supply. 

The UK Government works under the convention of collective responsibility, meaning that all Cabinet Members, Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries publicly support government decisions made in Cabinet. Or at least this is the theory. 

In the previous weeks, there has been an almost unprecedented level of inconsistency between various Cabinet Ministers’ statements on Brexit. The Chancellor, Phillip Hammond, has made jibes at the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, for describing the UK negotiating position as being “pro-cake and pro-eating it” and called for a long transition period following the UK’s exit from the EU in April 2019. Meanwhile, Brexit Secretary, David Davis, has reportedly inferred that the Chancellor’s views on the duration of any transition period have been inconsistent and International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, has announced he will be going to Washington later in July to begin talks on a future trade deal – something that on its face would not be possible until any transition period has ended. No 10 has made some attempts to argue that everyone is talking from the same script, but they have not been spinning this line very hard. 

It is perfectly possible that these prima facie inconsistencies in collective responsibility have arisen because no decisions have been made by Cabinet. However, the willingness of Cabinet Ministers to so blatantly advocate their own personal views on Brexit appears to be indicative of a Cabinet jostling for leadership credentials and freed from the iron rule of Theresa May’s ex-Chiefs of Staff. In this regard, it is notable that Cabinet splits have not been limited to Brexit, but have also extended to the issue of removing the cap on public sector pay. 

Businesses and commentators are reasonably raising concerns that negotiations have begun and yet the UK’s negotiating position does not appear to be settled. The Government remains clear that the UK is leaving the single market, but even on the issue of the customs union, the UK’s political leaders are creating uncertainty. This impression has gained credence with a report in the FT this week, which alleges that Treasury officials have written a paper which includes a challenge to the Department for International Trade to prove it can deliver free-trade agreements that would outweigh any losses associated with leaving the customs union.

There is no doubt that decisions on the minutiae of the negotiations - which are not referenced in the Government’s Brexit White Paper – have been made. But reports that a detailed discussion has not yet taken place between Government Departments about the impact of leaving the single market on specific sectors of the UK economy create concern for outsiders. There is a reported lack of communication within the civil service, particularly at the Department for Exiting the European Union, so it is perhaps unsurprising that decisions are not being communicated to the public. 

To further confuse the messages coming from political decision makers, an unofficial delegation from the City of London went to Brussels this week, seeking support on a financial services free-trade agreement following the completion of the negotiations. The CityUK and the City of London Corporation have given this group backing, as have senior officials in Whitehall – albeit unofficially. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, has also called for the regions of the UK to be given their own permanent seat at the negotiating table. 

Having secrets during a negotiation makes sense. Keeping your cards close to your chest makes sense. But the secrecy with which the Department for Exiting the European Union is operating is fermenting an environment in which political leaders have free rein to spread confusion. This week’s public row is about the possibility of transition arrangements, but further Cabinet rows are to be expected. Whilst the UK argues about time, the time afforded to these negotiations is quickly passing. 

Thomas Anelay

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