Cabinet resignations: an issue of principle

Following Iain Duncan-Smith’s high profile resignation from the cabinet this weekend, we take a look back at some other examples of resignations from the cabinet due to policy differences…

Resigning your post in government has long been the unhappy minister’s weapon of last resort. As Iain Duncan-Smith has been discovering this weekend, it can be an extremely powerful tool to highlight your opposition to government policies (and a chance to undermine your political enemies at the same time). For historians, these resignations can be controversial, with long-running debates over the reasons behind the resignation and the impact they had.

In recent years two examples of resignation on principle stand out. Robin Cook’s resignation from Tony Blair’s cabinet in opposition to the 2003 Iraq War not only highlighted the case against the war, but also greatly added to the reputation of Cook in the years before his death. Sir Geoffrey Howe, meanwhile, has long been credited with causing the downfall of Margaret Thatcher – widely seen as belittling him throughout his cabinet career – with an explosive and well-timed speech over Europe.

Some resignations have become lost from public memory, as the issues and motivations behind the decisions fade from public life – such as the resignation of four cabinet ministers over lay appropriation of church funds in Ireland in 1834 – an important matter in the history of the Liberal party, but little understood today. One of these four ministers, Lord Ripon, was a former prime minister (as Viscount Goderich, 1827-8). Another, Lord Stanley (the future earl of Derby), subsequently held the premiership three times, having left the Whig party for the Conservatives.

An equally high profile figure, whose resignation was prompted not by domestic matters, but by foreign policy concerns, was William Pitt the Elder, who resigned from the post of Secretary of State in 1762. Pitt was the leading figure in a ministry flushed with success in the Seven Years’ War, although his political fortunes changed when George III acceded to the throne in 1760 leading to the rise of John Stuart, 3rd earl of Bute. Pitt had been used to getting his way in cabinet, especially after taking credit for the ‘annus mirabilis’ of 1759 and military successes in Canada, Europe, Africa, and India, but he fell out of step with Bute and the new king who hoped to end the war. The breakdown came in 1761, during peace negotiations with the French and Louis XV. When a new alliance between France and Spain became known which threatened to continue the war, Pitt called for a pre-emptive strike on the Spanish. With little support from the rest of the cabinet, Pitt chose to carry out his, often threatened, resignation. In doing so Pitt maintained the political image he had so carefully constructed: he was a politician who had never sought office, but had led a successful war campaign that was now threatened by a bad peace treaty, which faced considerable public criticism. Pitt also faced criticism for his resignation and lost some of his famed popularity. However, he returned to office as Prime Minister in 1766.

In the 1880s a resignation of another rising star shook the cabinet and the Conservative administration of Lord Salisbury. Randolph Churchill, Chancellor of the Exchequer and one of the champions of ‘Tory Democracy’, resigned his post in 1886 over the apparently minor matter of defence estimates and the Secretary for War, W.H. Smith’s refusal to cut £500,000 from his budget. Historians have argued about the motivations behind his resignation ever since. To some, Churchill was an ambitious, independent politician who had tired of cabinet responsibility. He either believed he was indispensable to Salisbury due to his considerable popularity, and the threat of resignation would force Salisbury to back him, or perhaps he was even after the leadership of the party himself. On the other hand, Churchill’s actions have been explained by his belief that the Conservative government had to pursue reforming policies, such as retrenchment in defence to concentrate spending elsewhere, in order to win public support. If they failed to do so, the Liberal party would regain power and implement Home Rule in Ireland, a policy to which Churchill was steadily opposed. In his resignation letter Churchill wrote that he hoped his resignation would ‘help turn the Tory party into a more powerful governing force’ (see also his resignation statement to the House of Commons). Either way, Churchill’s resignation proved to be his most controversial political act, and he never again returned to high office.


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