When the coalition was formed in 2010, debate quickly began about who would be the first cabinet minister to resign over government policy, with the answer usually involving Vince Cable and spending cuts.
In the event, while there’s been no shortage of resignations, not one has been over a point of principle. To refresh, David Laws resigned as chief secretary to the Treasury on 29 May 2010 after claiming expenses to pay rent to his partner, Liam Fox resigned as defence secretary on 14 October 2011 after his lobbyist friend Adam Werritty was revealed to have joined him on official overseas trips, Chris Huhne resigned as energy and climate change secretary on 3 February 2012 after he was charged with perverting the course of justice by allowing Vicky Pryce to claim speeding points on his behalf, Andrew Mitchell resigned as chief whip on 19 October 2012 after allegedly calling the police “fucking plebs” and Tom Strathclyde resigned as leader of the House of Lords on 7 January 2013 to return to his business career.
But with government unity fraying over the Spending Review, it’s worth asking whether we could soon see the first principled resignation. When George Osborne announced yesterday that seven departments had agreed “in principle” to cuts of up to 10 per cent, he simultaneously revealed those that had not, including Defence (Philip Hammond), the Home Office (Theresa May) and Business (Vince Cable). While Osborne now intends to revive the government’s “star chamber” to coerce uncooperative ministers into accepting cuts, Hammond made it clear on the Today programme this morning that he was prepared to do battle with the Treasury:
We should be very clear that there is a difference between efficiency savings, which may be difficult to achieve but are painless in terms of the impact on the front line, and output cuts, which are of a very different order and require proper and mature consideration across government about the impact that they will have on our military capabilities.
Should Osborne nevertheless demand more than mere “efficiency savings”, it is no longer unthinkable that the hitherto loyal Hammond could walk out. After his recent interventions over welfare spending (cut it, rather than defence), the EU (he would vote to leave were a referendum held today) and gay marriage (wrong and a waste of government time), speculation has been growing among Tory MPs that Hammond could quit and set himself up as the leader of the traditionalist right. While Hammond’s allies dismissed the suggestion as “ridiculous”, the possibility of such a resignation increases as the election draws closer. If it looks as if the Tories will lose, the temptation for ministers to quit and position themselves for the leadership election to come could prove irresistible.
Another minister to watch, as ever, is Vince Cable, who has been lobbying hard for his department to be protected on economic grounds and has warned that “further significant cuts will do enormous damage to the things that really do matter like science, skills, innovation and universities” (he even suggested at one point that the Spending Review be abandoned) . If Osborne refuses to give way, Cable could well choose this moment to use his “nuclear option”.
Finally, there’s Theresa May, who argued at the weekend that the budget of the counter-terrorism police should be fully protected, as it was in the 2010 Spending Review. She said:
I’m absolutely clear that we need to ensure that the intelligence services and, indeed, in policing CT (counter-terrorism policing) … in the last spending review we ensured that CT policing was not treated the same as overall policing and I see every reason to take that same view in the next spending review.
Osborne said yesterday that he was “not going to do anything which is going to endanger the security of this country at home or abroad” but David Cameron’s spokesman later refused to confirm that this amounted to a guarantee that the anti-terror budget would be shielded from cuts. Should this area fail to escape Osborne’s axe, May, who, like Hammond, has been positioning herself for the post-Cameron era, could also choose to walk.