WELL, politicians don’t lie, but they do obfuscate. That seems to be the polite way to conclude a few hundred years of British politics (certainly when the general public just thinks “they’re all full of shit”).
Backbenchers, you may have noticed, are typically quite happy to play fast and the loose with their opinions. Members of Parliament have never been bolder, or more parochial, as Brexit splits opinion down the middle. They appear on the news, in the press or on shows like ‘Have I Got News For You’ and ‘Question Time’ and tell you exactly what they think. It seems like a rare treat.
Government ministers, on the other hand, do not. They’re scripted dedication seldom deviates from the party line before, poof, they resign or get sacked later that day. To the casual observer, it seems like there’s split loyalties and missing spines.
But backbenchers are meant to speak up – it’s not just the Opposition that holds the UK government to account, but their own party, because principled voices are better than complicit silence.
In the UK, ‘Cabinet collective responsibility’ is a peculiarly British development as to why government ministers never give way. Decisions are made by agreement, not solely by the executive command of the premier. Cabinet meetings are held in confidence, and ministers speak their mind on issues and come to a consensus.
Compared to say, the United States, government ministers are very powerful and nearly autonomous, even if they are hired or sacked by the prime minister. Collective agreement in Cabinet is the guiding operating principle of the UK government. Ministers must support all decisions publicly, even if they privately disagree with them.
This reason alone is why the media, and opposition members, delight in trying to fan contradictions and rumour about the allegiance of ministers.
Michael Howard, as Home Secretary, was famously asked a question 12 times by news presenter Jeremy Paxman in the span of a few minutes without answering. The solidarity of the government is an essential constitutional feature that, if removed, would lead to its collapse if there was no unifying necessity.
The Cabinet system has stood the test of time, but the public misunderstands it because it’s misrepresented by the media who should know better. It’s easier to condemn the personalities of ministers as robotically loyal and self-serving than people doing their constitutional duty.
Criticism is necessary to democracy, but droning on about stiff ministers ignores how the government system actually works.