In the old days they did the decent thing: Colin Brown asks elder statesmen why government ministers are apparently more reluctant to resign on matters of honour than they used to be

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The Independent Online
MPs and political grandees last night were left shaking their heads at the way ministers were more reluctant to resign than they used to be, after Michael Mates became the third minister in nine months to be forced out of office.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff, the former Labour prime minister, attributed the apparent lowering of standards in public life to the fall in standards in society. 'I think all politicians do is reflect the attitudes of society generally. Standards have dropped for policemen, politicians and university professors,' he said.

Lord Callaghan said the Prime Minister could impose higher standards. 'He can demand very high standards, if he wishes. He is the leader of the Government and any prime minister can lay down any standards he wishes. He chooses them, and he can fire them.'

Lord Whitelaw, who was a steadying influence in Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet, yesterday brushed aside talk of lower standards. 'I don't think there is any change. It depends on the circumstances.' But Enoch Powell, who resigned from the Macmillan government over public expenditure, disagreed, arguing that if anything could restore standards it was public opinion.

Baroness Thatcher was said to have been a 'bad butcher' but the principles of public life held firm when Lord Carrington took the blame for the invasion of the Falklands and resigned as foreign secretary.

John Major has proved more reluctant to dismiss ministers, and they have been more reluctant to volunteer. David Mellor offered his resignation when the press disclosed his affair with an actress, but Mr Major declined it. Mr Mellor was forced out by the grandees of the 1922 Committee, stepping down as Secretary of State for National Heritage on 24 September after weeks of damaging speculation.

By then, the skids were already under another Cabinet minister. Unlike Lord Callaghan, who resigned as Chancellor over the devaluation of the pound, Norman Lamont refused to resign when Britain was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism on Black Wednesday, 16 September, last year.

Mr Lamont faced continued calls for his resignation, but he refused to bow to the pressure, including criticism by the Public Accounts Committee of the Commons for using Treasury funds to pay legal expenses after reports that a sex therapist had rented his private home.

Mr Major surprised his critics by sacking the Chancellor on 27 May. Mr Lamont struck back in his resignation speech, telling the Prime Minister he appeared to be 'in office, but not in power'.

Three days later, the Government was plunged into the fresh crisis over Michael Mates, when it was disclosed that he had sent Asil Nadir a watch inscribed with the fateful message: 'Don't let the buggers get you down.' The Prime Minister told MPs that it was not 'a hanging offence'. But some of his friends said Mr Mates had been left 'hanging in the wind'.

Mr Major yesterday said Mr Mates had broken no rules. He had resigned because he was an embarrassment to the Government. That now appears the most sackable offence for modern ministers.