31 August 2013

The Commons vote this week opposing intervention in Syria not only limits the British Government’s authority to provide military support to the United States, but appears to break with the collective responsibility of Cabinet. For many decades, the doctrine of collective responsibility has been fundamental to Westminster constitutional arrangements.

In the UK all members of the Government from Ministers in Cabinet down to Parliamentary private secretaries are expected to comply with the doctrine. The rationale is that a vote of no confidence agreed by a majority in the Commons encompasses all Government office holders, and all Ministers resign their warrants.

The opportunity for a free vote may be given to back benchers enabling them to abstain or vote against an item of government business but by convention, all who hold positions in the Administration must support its business.

A Telegraph report is that the Whips are in trouble.  Arrangements were meant to be in place for a three line whip. In the event the Government lost the vote by 13, after 31 Conservatives – a number of whom hold ministerial appointments – failed to vote, and 30  “rebelled” and voted with Labour.

Part of the issue appears to be that a number were given leave as the strength of opposition to the vote was underestimated. However, there may be ten Ministers who lose their roles. Although several Lib Dem ministerial aides, also regarded as part of the Administration, abstained, their Party leader is less concerned about the outcome of the vote.

A similar circumstance threatened earlier this year at the time of the Queen’s Speech which included references to EU membership. A group of Conservative members who proposed moving an amendment to acceptance of the Speech were placated with arrangements for Ministers to abstain and for back benchers to have a free vote.