The ministerial resignations no one is talking about – and why they matter

This government has broken records when it comes to ministerial resignations. But not enough is being made of the impact this has had on Whitehall.

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Yesterday there were two ministerial resignations greeted with so little fanfare that even the most avid politico could be forgiven for missing them. Baroness Fairhead and Baroness Manzoor resigned from the Department for International Trade and the Government Whip’s Office in the House of Lords respectively, bringing the total number of resignations from Government positions under Theresa May to 50.

The lack of fuss is understandable, given the limited political consequences of two Lords ministers leaving office for personal reasons. But this is symptomatic of a greater problem when it comes to how we talk about ministers when they resign. Often there is so much focus on how resignations will influence politics in Westminster, that we neglect to discuss the extent to which they interrupt the effective running of Whitehall departments.

The extraordinary rate of ministerial turnover under Theresa May – caused in no small part by Brexit – has done just that. There have been 35 ministerial resignations in as many months, and some departments have been hit particularly hard. For example, eight ministers have resigned from the Department for Exiting the European Union since its inception in July 2016.

For a civil service department, transitioning to a new minister is often not a straightforward process. It usually involves a shift in the scale and scope of the work undertaken by specific areas of a department, to reflect the incoming minister’s new priorities and expectations. It also takes time for civil servants to adjust to the working styles of new ministers, and vice versa. As Ken Clarke told the Institute for Government’s Ministers Reflect series: “You could have an astonishing change in policy when the new minister turned up, let alone style.”

What is more, when a minister leaves office, the expertise and relationships they have developed in the role disappear with them. It is no surprise that ministers who have had the time to properly master their brief are usually seen as the most effective. George Eustice’s resignation in February after nearly six years as the minister responsible for agriculture, fisheries and food was seen as a “serious loss” by the agriculture lobby. When Alistair Burt resigned the following month, after five years as Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, experts on Syria expressed sadness at the loss of “one of the very few people in government who appeared to understand the complexity of the Syrian conflict”.

Yesterday’s resignations were unusual because they were pre-planned. Most resignations under Theresa May have been caused by political disagreements, and as a result were not pre-announced. This has only led to greater disruption in Whitehall. For example, on two separate occasions last year, DExEU lost two of its five-person ministerial team within 24 hours – including its Secretary of State in both instances – because of disagreements over Brexit. Indeed, this year alone there have been four resignations that were only made public when the resigning minister defied government whips by walking into a different division lobby to their colleagues during a Parliamentary vote.

It is a quirk of our political system that civil servants often find themselves discovering that the minister in charge of their policy area is resigning at the same time that everybody else does. But this leaves them vulnerable to being caught unprepared and pushed into a state of temporary paralysis, particularly when time-sensitive projects and papers need ministerial sign-off to be taken any further. This is especially the case in key Brexit departments, where deadlines are usually even tighter. Civil servants in DExEU can hardly have been pleased when Chris Heaton-Harris resigned as the minister responsible for no deal planning on 3 April, just nine days before the UK was due to leave the EU without a deal having been agreed.

Theresa May has also been leaving ministerial vacancies unfilled for extended periods of time. This has become a serious problem: David Cameron was able to replace every resigning Conservative minister within 24 hours, but Theresa May has taken an average of ten days per resigning minister. In March, the Department for Work and Pensions went over three weeks without a Minister for Disabled People after Sarah Newton resigned; and the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office still lack a full-time Minister for the Middle East six weeks after the resignation of Alistair Burt. Civil servants in the latter two departments have had to work through the overthrow of regimes in Sudan and Algeria, an escalation of the crises in Libya and Gaza, the ongoing civil war in Yemen, an election in Israel and Iran’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, all without a dedicated minister. Burt himself told the Sunday Times’ Sam Coates this morning that the government must appoint his successor, and he even took the unprecedented step of offering to take his old job back if they were unable to do so.

Ministerial resignations clearly impair the effective functioning of government, and as a result each one matters. The apathy with which yesterday’s resignations were received is another demonstration that they only tend to generate interest when they have tangible implications for politics in Westminster. If (or rather, when) another minister resigns over Brexit, look beyond the political repercussions and spare a thought for the civil servants who are so frequently left to pick up the pieces.

 Alasdair de Costa is a former research assistant at the Institute for Government.