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Exit process: what does it take to resign from government these days?

Matt Hancock and an exit sign - Image credit: Holyrood

Exit process: what does it take to resign from government these days?

What does it take to resign as a minster these days? Or be sacked?

It used to be that the slightest hint of a scandal, a failing in office or even an extra-marital affair was enough to send someone packing with their head down.

A small donation or something not registered correctly was a sure sign that someone wasn’t fit for a senior role, never mind if there was a major balls-up or serious misconduct.

If something went wrong, someone had to carry the can.

Remember Henry McLeish resigning as first minister over a failure to declare rent from subletting of his constituency office that he himself did not benefit from or Wendy Alexander resigning as Labour leader over a £950 donation to her party?

Stewart Stevenson, who resigned as transport secretary in 2010, essentially over snow and ice?

Small-fry scandals by current standards.

It used to be that having an affair was the end of the road. The culture on that has certainly changed – now more a subject of prurient interest than a moral failing that excludes you from office.

But even an actual breach of standards or the law now seems to only be an optional resignation matter.

Think Priti Patel being found to have breached the ministerial code over bullying, Dominic Cummings breaking COVID lockdown rules to travel from London to Durham while possibly infected with COVID and, more recently, Michael Gove being found to have acted unlawfully in using an emergency COVID contract awarded to close associates of his and Cummings to conduct research on the Union. All kept their positions.

UK Government health secretary Matt Hancock finally resigned last Saturday after footage emerged of him kissing and fondling a close aide, Gina Coladangelo, in his office, but that in itself was not enough for a resignation.

What was it that tipped the balance on that?

Hancock had already survived a “minor” rule breach that saw an NHS contract awarded to his sister’s company – which he owns a 20 per cent share of.

And before that, an NHS COVID testing contract was awarded to Hancock’s neighbour, Alex Bourne, a former pub landlord with no prior experience of medical devices.

Not to mention claims by Cummings that the Prime Minister had described Hancock as “useless”.

Boris Johnson had defended his health secretary only the day before, saying that he had accepted Hancock’s apology for breeching social distancing rules and he “considers the matter closed”.

But the next day Johnson was trying to take credit for having pushed Hancock to resign.

When asked whether Hancock’s behaviour had undermined public health messaging, Johnson said: “That’s right, and that’s why when I saw the story on Friday we had a new secretary of state for health in on Saturday.”

Johnson could hardly have called for Hancock to resign over an affair per se, nor was there much moral high ground left over high-profile breaching of social distancing rules after Cummings was allowed to keep his position despite weeks of public outrage, the obvious undermining of public health messaging and the resignation of then junior minister and now Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross.

Was it the fact that Hancock had appointed Coladangelo to the £15,000 a year role as a non-executive director in the health department?

Was it the information that emerged about him using personal email for official business, including discussions about NHS contracts?

Did Hancock himself realise his position was untenable or was he pushed?

Perhaps Johnson had learned from the Cummings affair and once it became clear the story would not go away, he had to go.

It would be particularly difficult to get anyone to take Hancock seriously as a minister after he had not only broken his own advice but been seen slow dancing in his office like a teenager.

Or was it that Hancock simply was too unpopular within his own party that he did not have the support to continue?

It is telling that it took a day of further allegations and media coverage for Johnson’s support to be reversed.

It’s easy to feel superior about Scotland when it comes to these affairs, but there was similar reaction when the former chief medical officer, Catherine Calderwood, broke lockdown rules to visit her holiday house and Nicola Sturgeon stood by her to begin with, until it became clear that public opinion would not allow it.

Here there is less of the obvious sleaze – party donations for favours, contracts for your mates, open breaching of the rules without consequences and on-the-job affairs – but there is still some of the same absence of accountability.

Where have been the resignations over the mishandling of the Alex Salmond harassment investigation, the problems with the SQA and exam marking, the care home deaths, the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital deaths and the delays to the Sick Kids, the ferry contracts, the investments in failing firms, the incorrect test and trace contact times stats, which were only revealed after investigations by the Lib Dems and journalists?

What is the threshold for a minister or senior civil servant falling on their sword over their own failings or those of their department?

This is compounded by being a small country where people may be afraid to stick their head above the parapet and criticise the government for fear of consequences.

And the recent revelation that part of Public Health Scotland’s role is to protect the Scottish Government’s reputation further highlights that public bodies might not be free to be entirely independent.

Both the UK and Scottish governments are in a situation where they know failures in office are unlikely to affect the results of the next election.

Neither has to worry that any performance issues are likely to loosen their grasp on power – as the recent Scottish Parliament election has shown.

So the question remains, what does it take to resign these days?

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