We’ve all done it — arrive a few minutes late for a meeting or other work commitment and, as a matter of principle and honour, resign on the spot.
I’m sorry, that’s not right, is it? We haven’t all done that at all. My mistake. I resign. You could be forgiven for being confused. On Wednesday, Michael Bates, a Conservative peer and minister in the department for international development, resigned when he failed to arrive in the Lords chamber in time to respond to a question from Labour peer and professor Ruth Lister.
It is always worth paying attention to what Lister says, and anyone sensible would have wanted to be there to hear it. But as the Lords timetable had been thrown by the two days of Brexit debate it was understandable if a busy minister might have got his timings wrong by a matter of minutes. No one was offended. No crime had been committed.
Lister herself said: “Of all the ministers I’d want to cause to resign, he’d be the last.” Bates is known for his courtesy and seriousness. And he was contrite in the extreme. “During the five years in which it’s been my privilege to answer questions from this dispatch box on behalf of the government, I’ve always believed that we should rise to the highest possible standards of courtesy and respect in responding on behalf of the government to the legitimate questions of the legislature,” he said. “I’m thoroughly ashamed at not being in my place and therefore I shall be offering my resignation to the prime minister with immediate effect. I do apologise.”
So saying, he picked up his papers and left the chamber, to an echo of “No!” from mystified peers. A cabinet full of scoundrels clings on tight to their jobs while a decent man walked for the tiniest of misdemeanours.
Never fear. The prime minister, still up late in China and quite possibly jet-lagged, let it be known that the resignation was not going to be accepted. It was all over by (our) bedtime.
This display of honourable behaviour seemed to take much of Westminster by surprise. The response echoed the closing lines of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, uttered by Judge Brack: “But, good God, people don’t do such things!”
They used to. Peter Carrington resigned as foreign secretary in 1982 after the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, along with his deputy Humphrey Atkins and junior minister Richard Luce. More recently, Estelle Morris stood down as education secretary in 2002 when she felt she was not doing a good enough job.
But such honourable departures, made on principle, are now extremely rare. Instead, we have to keep using the adjective “beleaguered” for weeks on end until a minister finally gives in and slinks out of office. Bates went too far. He had no need to resign. His sincere apology had already been accepted.
Besides, we really ought to be careful not to resign (or offer to resign) too quickly. Remember Greg Dyke’s experience at the BBC in 2004. In the wake of Lord Hutton’s report into the death of David Kelly , first the chairman of the BBC, Gavyn Davies, and then Dyke, the director general, were gone in 48 hours.
But Dyke had not really wanted to resign or believed that it was necessary. Indeed, at one point it was the board of governors who had intended to go, en masse. Dyke had said to them: “If I haven’t got your confidence, I can’t stay.” And, he explained to David Frost that Sunday: “At that stage I left the room. An hour or so later I discovered they had decided to suggest I leave. I’d offered it — that was it.”
This all happened 14 years ago, but looking at the state of the corporation last week you might feel that this was a moment from which the BBC is yet to recover. Interviewed for a documentary on BBC Four in 2011, called My Resignation, Dyke was asked what his advice would be now for someone contemplating walking out on a job.
“Don’t resign, wait,” he said. If you do ever find yourself “considering your position”, consider that.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Stefan Stern is director of the High Pay Centre and co-author of Myths of Management.