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Stepping down

BRITISH Prime Minister Boris Johnson did no more in the House of Commons last month than to pull off a reprieve. The Conservatives feel he is more of a liability than an asset. Therein lies the heart of the matter — the prime minister will resign when his party begins to feel that his continuance will spell doom in the next general election. Right now there is no alternative leader in sight. An election now will send the Tories into the wilderness.

By objective standards of public morality, Boris Johnson ought to have resigned. As the leader of the opposition pointed out, Boris Johnson had lied to the House of Commons and to the nation at large. But his party stood by him.

That said, it would be cynical to leave an important question to the vicissitudes of the politics of the day. In his classic Cabinet Government, Sir Ivor Jennings laid down two propositions. One, “The most elementary qualification demanded of a minister is honesty and incorruptibility. It is, however, necessary not only that he should possess this qualification but also that he should appear to possess it.” The benefit of the doubt does not go to him. Once under a cloud the minister, especially the prime minister, must go.

Jennings’ second proposition is that “a minister cannot hide behind the error of a subordinate. Within a department there must be substantial delegation of power, but the most essential characteristic of the civil service is the responsibility of the minister for every act done in his department”.

Once under a cloud, a minister must resign.

To quote Lord Morrison, “The proper answer of the minister is that, if the House wants anybody’s head it must be his head as the responsible minister… .”

In extreme cases, a minister has resigned because of the lapse of his departmental official. It does not, however, follow from that that a minister would also be held guilty of impropriety in the sense of moral turpitude or deviation from the path of rectitude because of an act of impropriety on the part on the part of the departmental official. Unless the circumstances of the case show that a minister by some positive act or deliberate omission has abetted the commission of that impropriety by the civil servant.

The highest point was reached in 1954 in the Crichel Down affair when the minister Sir Thomas Dugdale resigned over mistakes by a civil servant.

In India, prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru liked ‘strong men’ around him, so long as they kept the opposition at bay — Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed to keep Shaikh Mohammed Abdullah in indefinite detention under a false trial; Sardar Partap Singh Kairon to keep his Akalis in Punjab under control, and others. He wrote a large note to the president on Oct 25, 1963, reluctantly agreeing to a probe against the Punjab chief minister:

“For me, as for others, public interest must be the dominant consideration. The Punjab is a border province especially affected by developments with our neighbour countries. While this has been so ever since independence, it is very much more so since the emergency that has arisen because of the Chinese invasion. The conditions in the Punjab are therefore of very special importance and nothing should be done which adversely affects the situation there and weakens India’s position in this emergency.

“Fortunately the Punjab, under Sardar Partap Singh Kairon’s leadership, has played a very important part in this emergency and has provided both men and resources in a very considerable degree. Any step taken which might disturb this atmosphere in the Punjab and weaken the administration would be most unfortunate and harmful.

“It is generally re­c­ognised that in recent years, the Pun­jab has made considerable progress in industry and agriculture and production and per capita income have gone up considerably. Even the law and order situation in the Punjab has improved recently and compares favourably with that in the other states of India. It is thus a progressive and dynamic state which is making rapid advances in many fields.

“The old conflicts, chiefly based on communal considerations or languages, are not in evidence there now although some elements in the Punjab would like to encourage such conflicts. Any change in the leadership in the Punjab might well result in producing confusion and putting a stop to the great progress that Punjab is making, and encouraging fissiparous and communal elements to gain more prominence.

“For those reasons, I think it … would be a very wrong thing for me to advise him to resign. The public interest would no doubt suffer if any such development took place. Thus, both because of legal and constitutional reasons as well as those of public interest, I am clear in my mind that I should not give this advice.”

Nehru set a bad example in such matters. His principles were based on sheer expediency. They govern now in 2022.

A.G. Noorani, "Stepping down," Dawn. 2022-02-07.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political aspects , Political parties , Political leaders