The Great Resignation of British Ministers

Last week was a pretty dramatic week for UK politics. On Tuesday, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, the UK’s chancellor and health secretary respectively, resigned from their cabinet posts within minutes of each other, citing the incompetency and impossibility of working with Prime Minister Boris Johnson as their motivation.

Over the next couple of days, around 60 MPs with additional responsibilities – mainly a mix of the cabinet, ministers and parliamentary private secretaries followed their lead, with a deluge of resignation letters along the same lines taking the nation by storm.

Our premier, seemingly unconcerned with the idea of running the country without ministers at first refused to step down, instead firing “Levelling Up Secretary” Michael Gove. But eventually even he had to bow to the inevitable, giving an admittedly somewhat vague resignation speech on Thursday. And now we’re in the midst of a fierce battle for to be the leader of the Conservative party, and hence the new Prime Minister.

Anyway, every major news story these days comes with a relevant dataset. The one I’m focussing on here was provided by Tim Durrant of the Institute for Government. It contains details of all ministerial resignations that happened outside of the scope of a reshuffle since 1979, the beginning of Margaret Thatcher‘s time as Prime Minister.

Note that this is a smaller number of people than the 60ish mentioned above, as a lot of last week’s resignations were from non-ministerial positions – primarily the parliamentary private secretaries.

For some context, since 1975 there’s been a limit of 109 paid ministers at any one time, although the government is free to, and does, appoint others on an unpaid basis. As of July 2022 there was 134 ministerial positions in total.

Ministers do of course eventually resign at some point, for a variety of reasons. This dataset gives us the possibility to get a sense of to what extent last week’s drama was truly unusual. It should be said that a certain amount of judgement has to be applied on certain edge-cases as to what exactly constitutes a non-reshuffle based resignation. But there was no reshuffling taking place immediately before last week, so all of last week’s departure can be included for sure. Here I’ll take the dataset at face value – I certainly do not have more expertise than the Institute for Government on these matters.

Let’s starting off with a simple count of non-reshuffle based resignations:

So Johnson has had the most ministerial resignations of this type of any Prime Minister over the last 43 years. The previous Conservative PM, Theresa May, wasn’t so far behind at 41. We should probably also note that whilst Johnson has committed to resigning as PM, until the leadership election has completed he still in fact is PM so it’s technically possible that his total could go up even higher before the end of his tenure.

Looking now at the timeline of when they occurred, one datapoint per day, things do start to seem a bit more unprecedented.

The most resignations ever seen from Thatcher onwards on a single day was previously 4, under Theresa May on November 15th 2018. Last week however this record was broken not once but twice, with a peak of 16 ministerial resignations on July 6th 2022.

This chart, as well as common sense, shows that different Prime Ministers have served for different length terms. Thatcher was the Prime Minister for the longest duration since 1979, in power for around eleven and a half years. Tony Blair was the only other person to get to the 10 year mark.

Comparing the resignation count under someone who served 11 years to someone who served less than three (Gordon Brown, and, so far, Boris Johnson) may be a little disingenuous. Instead we might plot the cumulative resignation count as a factor of how long the incumbent PM had been in office at the time of the resignation.

And yes, Boris with that shocking vertical line starting on his 1079th day, really does stand out. In terms of PM tenure, Johnson’s result looks most similar to May’s, who also had an unusually large number of resignations for this dataset when around the 1000 day mark – but, as mentioned, never nearly so many on the same day.

One can imagine resignations happen for many different reasons. The Institute for Government has attempted to classify each one into a category so we can compare the “why?” as well as the “how many?”.

Now this datapoint is necessarily a little subjective – people may resign for a combination of reasons, what is considered a personal reason by someone might be deemed a disagreement by someone else, the choice of categories is itself much more an art – and potentially one influenced by pre-existing opinions – than a science. But let’s see what we have and hope that at least there’s something meaningful to say at a big picture level.

The first thing that stands out to me is what the most common reason category was for each premier.

For each of the leaders from Thatcher through to Cameron, the admittedly somewhat vague-sounding category “Personal / Other” was the most frequent. Somewhat curious, I picked through some of the specifics in some of these cases. Taking the chronologically first “Personal / Other” resignation from each of the first five PMs in the dataset one sees:

  • Oppenheim, under Thatcher, who resigned due to the death of her husband.
  • Mellor, under Major, who resigned after having an affair, leaving him a “point of weakness” in the government.
  • Foster, under Blair, who resigned in the first week of the Blair administration – the fastest resignation seen in this dataset. He felt dissatisfied with the post he had been offered when Labour took power, having being a shadow for a more senior post when in opposition.
  • Drayson, under Brown, who got bored of working in the Ministry of Defence and went off to follow his dream of racing cars. Or to quote him directly, to pursue “a wonderful opportunity to showcase British motorsport technology”. By driving said technology very fast around tracks.
  • Huhne, under Cameron, who resigned following being charged with committing a speeding offence, and then pretending it was his wife that was driving.

Quite a mixed bag indeed.

The reason distribution for May and Johnson is a little different. The modal category for both of them “disagreement”. Over 80% of Johnson’s quitters were classified as such compared to a little under 60% of May’s. That’s still quite a substantial difference, but nonetheless both stand out vs the rest of the field as having the most resignations as a result of this reason.

What differs substantially though is the nature of the disagreement. Let’s take a deeper diver into the last 5 such resignations under both May and Johnson.

For May, that would be Burt, Adams, Heaton-Harris, Leadsom and James.

  • Burt was frustrated with how MPs were being told to vote with regards to Brexit.
  • Adams thought the Brexit deal on offer was a failure.
  • Heaton-Harris was likewise frustrated with the failure to quickly leave the EU.
  • Leadsom did not believe May’s approach to Brexit delivered on the referendum result.
  • James’ could not carry on with the approach to Brexit that risked no deal, and the risk to the Belfast agreement. In fact she cites Boris Johnson’s attitude as being a key driver in her resignation letter – “the fact that Boris Johnson has made such uncompromising commitments to a ‘do or die’ Brexit by October 31st with or without a deal is concerning enough”, this now being in the era of the previous Conservative leadership election. In a way it may in fact be a little unfair to associate this particular resignation with May, despite her being the leader at the time. But, to quote one of the more cringe-worthy parts of Johnson’s resignation speech, them’s the breaks.

In summary, the motivation for a whole lot of these later May resignations was based on her perceived Brexit policy, from both sides of the debate.

For Boris Johnson, well, this has happened recently enough that we probably don’t really need to dig into why he’s lost such a lot of ministers recently. But in the interests of completeness, the most recent five in his case are Opperman, Philp, Cartlidge, Donelan and Pow.

  • In his resignation letter to Johnson, Opperman wrote “…recent events have shown clearly that the Government simply cannot function with you in charge.”
  • Philp wrote “Important as all these things are, so are integrity, honesty and trust in politics. Given events over the past few weeks and months I therefore think that you should resign…”
  • Cartlidge claimed that “It must now be obvious that [putting aside Johnson’s previous transgressions] is no longer even remotely possible.”
  • Donelan writes “You have put us in an impossible situation. I am deeply saddened that it has come to this, but as someone who values integrity above all else, I have no choice.”
  • Pow wrote that “I have to put values, integrity and the moral code by which I live….by first, and those qualities have been sadly lacking in too many decisions coming from the top despite many chances to correct matters.”

The other 26 ministerial resignations over the same couple of days, along with the around 30 non-ministerial ones not featured in this dataset, were all along these same lines.

It was thus not so much that Boris Johnson’s ministers disagreed with the policies he promoted, as was the case with Theresa May’s burst of resignations over her efforts to implement Brexit. Indeed some ministers certainly thought current Conservative policies good and worthwhile aims and regretted that they felt compelled to leave their position enacting them.

They simply felt that they could not legitimately carry on directly facilitating a government led by a premier they saw as incompetent and immoral. There was seemingly no chance Johnson would ever leave of his own volition, no matter how many of his inner circle pleaded with him to do so, so sought recourse in a combined mass resignation as being the remaining way to force his hand.

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