Of quitters, splitters, liars and Byers

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The Independent Online

The most enduring myth of politics is that there was once a golden age of resignations. According to the story, ministers resigned like a shot, either when they themselves were caught out or when they took responsibility for the errors of others. Sometimes such conduct was forced upon them; more often, in that age of chivalry, they performed the supreme political sacrifice like gentlemen, with no need for nudging or pushing by anybody else.

They might also, of course, resign because they disagreed with government policy, or a specific aspect of it. Michael Heseltine resigned over Westland; Nigel Lawson over the position of Sir Alan Walters; and Geoffrey Howe ostensibly over Margaret Thatcher's attitude to Europe, in reality because he could not stand the old bat's attitude towards himself any longer.

Quite often resignations of this kind are as much tactical as principled, because the resigning minister wishes to lead a dissident group on the back benches or to become leader of his party. Aneurin Bevan wanted to do both when he resigned from the Attlee government over teeth and specs. Lord Heseltine had merely the leadership of the Conservatives in mind when he resigned from the Thatcher government over helicopters. There were few Heselteenies.

There is another category of resignation about which a word should be said. It is the most common type of all. That is the sacking which is dressed up for public purposes as a resignation. Thus Norman Lamont did not resign in 1993 as had his predecessor Lord Lawson: he was belatedly given the sack after our expulsion from the exchange-rate mechanism. Similarly, Mr Ron Davies was dismissed from Mr Tony Blair's first administration following his "moment of madness" on Clapham Common.

Mr Davies and Lord Lamont were wrongly allowed to make resignation speeches in the House, as others in the same position have been also. Such privileged occasions should be restricted to voluntary departures from government. Mr Davies used the opportunity to tell us of his distressing childhood. Lord Lamont was credited with coining the phrase "in office but not in power" of the Major administration. In fact it was first used about Ramsay MacDonald's minority government of 1924.

The foreign office ministers Lord Carrington, Humphrey Atkins and Richard Luce resigned because they (or their department) had failed to foresee the invasion of the Falklands and to take precautions accordingly. They were said to be the only example of sacrificial or responsibility-taking resignation since that of Sir Thomas Dugdale from the Ministry of Agriculture in 1954.

It is the Dugdale case which is held to mark the end of the old era. He went because his department had been held to blame for wrongfully hanging on to a Dorset estate, Crichel Down, which had been requisitioned in the war. The circumstances of his departure do not justify the legend that has grown up around it. He did not resign because he thought his civil servants had been wrong but because he thought they had been right and were receiving no support from his government colleagues. His backbenchers, similarly, did not support him or his department and were not sorry to see him go.

Unlike the Labour backbenchers who came to the aid of Mr Stephen Byers last week, the Tories successfully demanded the resignation of Sir Leon Brittan during the Westland affair. Ostensibly it was because, as Trade and Industry Secretary, he was held responsible for the leaking of the Solicitor General's letter. In reality it was because the Tory multitude, in an incident which had more than a whiff of anti-Semitism about it, required a pointless sacrifice.

The word "ostensibly" keeps coming up in discussions of these resignations. It is because lofty, usually ex post facto justifications are produced for surrender, whether to mob rule by the backbenchers, to lynch law from the newspapers or simply to political convenience. No principle is remotely involved. Ministers who resign are now commonly returned to government – ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven – after they have paid their debt to society.

Thus Cecil Parkinson was taken back by Mrs Thatcher. Peter Mandelson was restored by Mr Blair after even a shorter time in the cave than Lord Parkinson had endured, though his resurrection did not last for very long. The Tim Yeo who now receives such good notices as an opposition spokesman is the very same gentleman who, eight years ago, was compelled to resign from the Major government for having made a councillor pregnant. At the same time Lord Caithness resigned from the government on account of his wife's suicide following an affair on his part – the most private of matters.

But then, this was in the era of "Back to Basics", in which a speech by Mr John Major at the conference about studying spelling and sums was taken by the cheap press to refer to playing doctors and nurses, even though it contained not a single mention of the activity in question.

Nothing of this kind is involved with Mr Byers. There is, admittedly, a lady in the case: Ms Jo Moore. For myself, I do not view her original missive about 11 September with quite such outrage as most of my colleagues seem to have been able to summon. Even so, Mr Byers would probably have been wise to bid her farewell shortly afterwards rather than to retain her services.

My mother taught me that it was impolite to accuse anybody else of being a liar. Nevertheless I cannot help recalling the exchange between two Welshwomen about the newly arrived minister at their chapel:

"He is a fine-looking man, there is no doubt about that."

"With a lovely voice."

"And so powerful in prayer."

"What a pity he's such a bloody liar."

Mr Byers has – let us put it this way – caused misunderstanding about several matters. He discussed Mr Martin Sixsmith's position with his Permanent Secretary, Sir Richard Mottram. He made Mr Sixsmith's dismissal a consequence of Ms Moore's. And he laid down that Mr Sixsmith was not to be offered another job in government service either now or perhaps (for it is still not entirely clear) ever again.

The last totalitarian instruction is more serious than the lies. Another of those ostensible reasons was Mr John Profumo's lying to the House on his sexual relations, a matter about which no one ever does tell the truth. Mr Blair tells lies all the time: about the Newcastle United of his childhood, about stowing away on an aeroplane and, not least, about fox-hunting. No one demands that Mr Blair should resign.