“Who wouldn’t make a phone call if they were told it could save somebody’s life?”
This emotive tweet from Keir Starmer captures the feelings of many people in the past two weeks. Among others, Ian Blackford MP, Lisa Nandy and Layla Moran have called for Raab’s resignation or for him to be sacked.
We all know why these calls have been made: whilst on holiday in Crete, Dominic Raab’s decision to delegate a phone call (which concerned the repatriation of Afghan interpreters) to a junior minister resulted in the phone call never taking place.
The calls for resignation are presumably grounded in the premise that Raab has failed in relation to his individual ministerial responsibility. So, has Raab actually breached his ministerial responsibility?
Students of Public Law will be aware of individual ministerial responsibility being a constitutional convention, which makes ministers accountable to Parliament for the actions of government. With this comes an ‘expectation that they should resign if something has gone seriously wrong’. Constitutional conventions are a set of slippery (and sometimes nebulous) concepts as they are not laid out in law. As such, Raab is not legally obligated to resign, even if something did go seriously wrong.
Nevertheless, the question here is one of degree: did something go ‘seriously wrong’? And if nothing went ‘seriously wrong’, are the calls for Raab’s resignation reasonable?
It is, of course, impossible to fully and accurately determine the outcome of an action that did not take place. In the shocking and heart-breaking events that are unfolding in Afghanistan, it would inappropriate to speculate on how events would have occurred when the situation is so unpredictable and volatile. Such speculation avoids the crux of the issue: that the omission occurred. Therefore, it is more important, useful and relevant to focus on the action (or in this case, omission) that took place, rather than the outcome.
Raab’s supporters are doing quite the opposite: ignoring the (arguable) breach of responsibility by giving the impression that the most important thing to focus on is that nothing went seriously wrong as a result of his actions/omissions. According to Ben Wallace, whether the phone call had or had not been made, ‘it wouldn’t have made a blind bit of difference.’ Similar opinions on Raab’s omissions have been made elsewhere, with The New Statesman expressing that the phone call would have made ‘no actual difference on the ground in Afghanistan’.
Another source with which to examine Raab’s actions is the Ministerial Code. Again, as Public Law students will know, the Ministerial Code is a single document where the most important constitutional conventions on acceptable ministerial behaviour is contained. In his foreword to the Ministerial Code, Johnson states that ‘we must uphold the very highest standards of propriety’. Did Raab fall short of these standards? Let’s take a quick review of the Ministerial Code to see whether there appears to be a breach of any of the standards required of ministers.
Section 1.3 of the Code refers to the ‘overarching duty on Ministers to comply with the law and to protect the integrity of public life’. Certainly it could be suggested that people’s faith in the integrity of public life has been challenged by the knowledge that a phone call concerning something of this magnitude was delegated and then did not take place. The final of the Seven Principles of Public Life is Leadership, and part of this means that the minister is ‘willing to challenge poor behaviour wherever it occurs.’ Were Raab’s actions/omissions the very highest standards of propriety? And is he challenging his own poor behaviour? Of course ‘very highest’ is an ideal and does not leave room for human error – but is human error acceptable in the highest offices of public service?
Boris Johnson has been clear that Raab has his full support. As the ‘ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister and the appropriate consequences of a breach’ (Section 1.6), this effectively closes the matter. Johnson does not judge the omission a breach, so it is not a breach. During his tenure, Johnson has consistently shown support for his ministers, most notably in his decision not to fire Priti Patel for bullying and harassment. It is difficult to compare the actions of Patel to the omissions of Raab. As this article has argued, it is best to look at the action or omission itself, as opposed to the consequences. With this in mind, the active nature of bullying and harassment would seem more severe than the action of delegating a phone call. Raab seems very far and very safe from resignation or a sacking.
Ultimately, the question of whether Raab should resign or be sacked is one that is both answerable and unanswerable by examining constitutional conventions because the subjective judgement of the Prime Minister is supreme. It seems just that final decisions on hiring and firing remain with the Prime Minister, but evidently many people are left feeling dissatisfied with the lack of consequence for Raab’s actions/omissions.