A Minister's Guide to Resignation

31 Dec 2018


Are you a Government Minister? Are you cheesed off by Theresa May's Brexit deal? Maybe you just can't get over that new infrastructure plan or policy U-turn. Let me guess, you've just become embroiled in a scandal and you can't decide whether to resign with your head hung in shame or hunker down and wait for the storm to pass (If that's the case, please resign, hanging on won't do you any favours in the long term). 


Whatever your problem, you've come to the right place. Here we'll discuss not only when to resign, but also how to resign effectively. We'll also look at some up to date examples of resignations that worked well and some that, well, didn't.


But before we launch into a step by step guide, let's start with the theory behind resignations. Every resignation is composed of two main ingredients - principle and protest. 


Principle the more personal side of a resignation, when a minister feels no longer able to carry out their ministerial role. This could be due to a disagreement in policy or, in cases such as Amber Rudd's, that they feel they haven't lived up to ministerial standards. 


A principled resignation will almost certainly have a strong reason behind it, but it's general aim isn't to create a mass movement and overthrow the government. If done correctly, a principled resignation starts with a minister wiping away a single tear, thanking their incredible civil servants, and walking out the door with their head held high. It should end with the promise to focus on doing the best for their constituents and quiet respect from the public.


On the other hand, the protest part of a resignation is a bit more bull in a china-shop. It's about creating a movement. Resignations mostly made up of protest are the juicy ones that everyone remembers. The ones that send the whole of Westminster into overdrive and spark rumours of leadership contests or the fall of the government. If done correctly, they are the resignations that start by setting everything alight and end with an ex-minister emerging from the flames to grab the keys to Number 10. 


So what type of resignation is right for you? And how can you pull it off?


The first thing that's important to remember is not to get too big for your boots. If you're the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Food and Animal Welfare (David Rutley if you're reading this I'm sorry and you seem like a lovely guy) you won't have quite the same influence as someone like the Chancellor or Home Secretary. That doesn't mean you can't have a successful resignation! It just means you should pick a small battle with lots of public support already if you want a principled resignation, or resign along with a group of your other ministerial pals if you want to be part of a protest resignation.  


The next thing to think about is the effect you want your resignation to have. This could be anything from a minor policy change to overthrowing the government. The best aims are achievable but memorable. 


One example of an unsuccessful aim was when Greg Hands resigned over the Heathrow expansion. His resignation was definitely one of principle, and was successful in the way in which it had wide support from his constituents and also lead to calls for Boris Johnson, who also opposed Heathrow expansion, to resign as Foreign Secretary. However it was unsuccessful as Parliament still voted in favour of expanding Heathrow, and Johnson remained in his post. 


Now's the time to weigh up how much principle vs how much protest you want in your resignation. This will start to give you ideas of how to carry out the act in a way that meets your aims. Every resignation will have elements of both, but most will be mainly driven by one of the two components.


We'll start with a principled resignation. A perfect example is the resignation of Tracey Crouch as Sports Minister. Crouch resigned after Chancellor Philip Hammond announced in the Autumn budget that a cut in maximum stakes for fixed odds betting terminals from £100 to £2 would be delayed until October 2019. 


This was an effective resignation as it had a clear, achievable, and honourable purpose that was popular with the electorate.


 It was clear as it was on one point of policy within her own brief, and she resigned as soon as she heard of the delays. 


It was achievable as there were enough Tory rebels to pass an amendment through the House of Commons to bring the planned changes forwards, thus meeting her aims.


It was honourable as gambling addictions ruin lives around Britain and this clampdown was seen as a big step towards preventing people getting into huge debts due to gambling related problems. In fact it was so honourable, even the Archbishop of Canterbury congratulated her via Twitter. It was immensely popular amongst the electorate, with an outpouring of support on social media sites and in letters to her office.


In the tweet announcing her resignation she included the line: "Politicians come and go but principles stay with us forever". If that doesn't reek of heartstring-pulling respectability, I don't know what does.


One of the things that makes a good principled resignation is if the minister carrying out didn't need to resign, and was doing a pretty good job, but chose to resign to mark their own high personal standards. This was clearly seen in Tracey Crouch's case as she'd still secured the cuts in FOBT maximum stakes even without her resignation, it just wasn't happening as soon as she wanted it to.


On that point, Justine Greening's resignation was a strong one. During the Cabinet reshuffle Theresa May tried to move her from Education to Work and Pensions.  Before resigning, Greening was in the Prime Minister's office for over two hours having what I can only imagine was one of the most intense conversations ever had by any human beings ever. 


She walked out with her head held high, noticeably distraught about losing a job she clearly adored. Just the manner in which she resigned won over a huge amount of public support. People wanted her back in office. That's what a good principled resignation does for you.


Another strong point of Greening's resignation was how she used her new backbench freedom. She's put a huge amount of time and effort into campaigning for social mobility - showing that she really cares about education rather than just wanting to be a minister to further her own career.


Greening's resignation also highlighted the importance of timing when considering when to resign. When tensions are high and everyone is playing dirty, a resignation on principle can make you look like the valiant voice of reason amongst a crowd of Machiavellian career minded fools. 


Chequers was a missed opportunity for an incredible resignation. The walk down the winding country drive straight into the media pack would've been a perfect opportunity for someone low ranking in Cabinet to make a principled resignation. Imagine the tension. The pictures in the papers the next day of the lone minister taking the long walk away from their future career to back the red white and blue Brexit they truly believed in.


For holders of the great offices of state, it's much harder to pull off a principled resignation. No matter how you resign, it's likely to cause so much disruption that it works more like a protest resignation. 


Amber Rudd's resignation was a very interesting one. Although it seemed at the time that there was no way she could hang on to her job after the Windrush scandal, it has since emerged that not only had government insiders urged her to stay in post, but also that senior civil servants were at least partially responsible for her inadvertently misleading the House. 


There are two main ways in which Rudd managed to pull her resignation off as principled. The first is that she could've clung to her job. Instead she resigned on a matter of personal integrity. She put down her foot and admitted that she should have done better. 


The other is that she had public support. Some blamed Theresa May for Windrush, others blamed previous governments, but surprisingly few blamed Rudd. Lots of people saw her as a human shield for the Prime Minister, and felt it was unjust that Rudd should lose her job over a crisis she didn't create.


Does this all sound a bit virtuous to you? Are you more megastar on a mission than pious public servant? If that's the case, a protest resignation is right for you. While researching this piece, I did a small poll of my non-political acquaintances asking them which resignations of 2018 they could actually remember. 


The results were clear. David Davis was the clear victor. He absolutely nailed the protest resignation when he resigned over Theresa May's Chequers agreement. His resignation broke the thin guise of Cabinet unity, plunging Whitehall into chaos.


His timing was stellar. Resigning at midnight on a Sunday is so extra. Let's be honest, who hasn't imagined dramatically quitting their job on a Sunday night? He'd been threatening to resign for months so it really shouldn't have been a surprise when he finally did. But somehow it was. It was so unexpected that he managed to resign while even BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg was asleep (and she doesn't seem to sleep very often). 


He also set a precedent. Now all the other Brexiteer ministers that didn't resign looked like chickens. Davis was closely followed by a gaggle of lower ranking ministers, and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. He started a movement - and although he hasn't since emerged as a new leader, his resignation marked the beginning of the end for Theresa May's Chequers agreement. 


With a protest resignation, the media storm that follows is as important as the resignation itself. On one hand, political journalists everywhere were peeved at being completely unable to sleep until at least 3am, on the other, the people of Britain woke up the next morning to hear David Davis' name on every single news bulletin.


Boris Johnson's attempt at a protest resignation the next day was slightly less successful. Which is initially surprising as he had a much higher public profile and was tipped as a potential future leader. However, the execution of his resignation was sub par in many ways:


The fact that Davis resigned first made Johnson look like a follower not a leader. Johnson got the timing wrong, locking himself in his house for the entire morning rather than going to work. When he finally announced his resignation it was so expected that it lost its pizazz. 


Another critical factor Johnson got wrong was that he overestimated his own popularity. Big surprise eh? Boris Johnson became Mayor of London in 2008. That means he's been in high profile politics for over ten years. His influence has undoubtedly started to wane as people are getting bored of his loud personality, and he forgot to compensate for the fact that his time as Foreign Secretary was littered with blunders and in no way compared to his performance as London Mayor. 


A good protest resignation is incredibly hard to pull off. Unless you've got a strong public image and a backbench following, I wouldn't recommend going at it alone. Dominic Raab's resignation had potential. It leaned more towards principle than Davis' but was still overall a protest resignation. 


However, it was to success what flavoured water is to juice. It vaguely resembled it but just didn't cut it. It was successful in that the odds of him becoming the next Tory leader shot up, and his resignation was the catalyst that ultimately lead to a vote of confidence in Theresa May. However, she won the confidence vote and now less than two months later hardly any of the non-politicos I spoke to remembered his name. 


He only stayed in post for a few months, and his legacy as "that Brexit guy" or "the one after David Davis" already seems to be embedded in the history books.


So, dear minister, we've looked at the theory, we've learned from the work of others, but before you start penning that resignation letter, let's end with a step by step guide to the perfect resignation.


1. Decide on what you want to achieve by resigning. It could be big or small, as long as it's clear and achievable.

2. Consider your position as a minister. The way in which you should resign is very different depending on how high up in government you are and your level of popularity. Whatever you do, don't overestimate yourself.

3. Choose whether to resign mainly on principle or in protest. It would've looked ridiculous if Amber Rudd would've walked out trying to trash the government and calling the Prime Minister a loser. David Davis would've looked a bit naff if he had apologised for causing a fuss and let himself out the back door.

4. Choose a time. If you want attention, do something mad like David Davis did. If you want to slip under the radar do it during a football match or something.

5. Hand in a letter. For a protest resignation just attack everyone and everything. For a principled resignation criticise something or someone and thank everyone else.

6. Do the media rounds. Use this platform to get your case heard and establish your new image as a backbencher.

7. Use your new role wisely. With your new found freedom on the backbenches you can campaign for whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want. Have some fun! Do some good!


Now if you're an actual minister reading this, go on, do it, I dare you. 

(And please feel free to tell me in advance.)


A Backbench Report by Jess Insall



Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Please reload

Want to respond? Submit an article.


We provide a space for reasoned arguments and constructive disagreements.

Help to improve the quality of political debate – support our work today.