John Rentoul: Resign? You must be joking

The man who failed to see the problem must stay in office to put it right
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What does it take for a minister to resign these days? No, you are not meant to answer that. It is what you are supposed to say on radio phone-ins, or on Question Time if you are a Liberal Democrat looking for easy applause. It is a verbal device to introduce a condemnation of Charles Clarke. And condemning the Home Secretary is easy, so we might as well do it. It makes us feel better. Here is a man who admits that he personally "failed" when presented with a "very serious problem", and who says he must stay in office to put it right.

It doesn't seem to make sense. It was his fault 288 foreign prisoners were released without being considered for deportation after he became aware of the problem last year. Yet he asks us to trust him to fix it.

But after we have tutted and shaken our heads, then what? What purpose would be served by his resignation? Clarke is probably the most impressive minister in the Government after Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. If you had to choose someone on the Labour side to sort out the problem and make us feel safer, who is likely to do a better job than Clarke? It may seem counterintuitive, but there is logic in saying that, as the man who failed to fix the problem immediately, he is best placed to make sure, now it has been fixed, that it stays fixed.

Yet what about accountability? What, really, should it take for a minister to resign? There are rules, unwritten and flexible though they may be. First, though, we need to clear away the implication that it wasn't like this in the good old days. The impression given is that, once upon a time, cabinet ministers were always - almost weekly - resigning on a point of honour. A junior civil servant in some far-flung part of his department had only to lose a stapler for the Secretary of State to be on his feet in Parliament saying that he was just going outside and might be some time.

It is worth looking more closely at the case of Lord Carrington, which old buffers always cite. He resigned as Foreign Secretary four days after the Argentine invasion of the Falkland Islands, along with two junior ministers, Humphrey Atkins and Richard Luce. They were not closely implicated in the decision to withdraw the patrol ship HMS Endurance, which sent a signal of weakness to Argentina (that was a strategic decision for which Margaret Thatcher was responsible). But, as Carrington said at the time, his departure would end the recriminations over the invasion and make it easier for the British government to concentrate on recovering the Falklands.

The point is that the Argentine invasion is not remotely comparable to the failure fully to enforce deportation law. It was, as Carrington said, "a humiliating affront to this country" and was more comparable to the failure of the Norway campaign in 1940, which prompted the resignation of Neville Chamberlain.

Clarke's problems with deportations - although serious to the victims of the criminals who should have been deported - are in a different league. They should be bracketed with, say, the problems with the Passport Office experienced by Jack Straw as Home Secretary in 1999, or the prison escapes that happened when Michael Howard was at the Home Office in 1995.

At this level, it is reasonably clear what it takes for a minister to resign. Two offences - misleading the House of Commons and breaking the Ministerial Code of Ethics - between them, or variants of them, account for the resignations of Peter Mandelson (twice), David Blunkett (twice) and Stephen Byers (although he got into trouble over things he said in a television interview).

The only other forced resignation from Blair's Cabinet - not counting ministers dropped for underperformance or political disagreement - was Ron Davies, who resigned as Wales Secretary in 1998. In his case, the unwritten rule was also fairly clear. Ministers are required to resign if events in their private lives affect their ability to carry out their duties.

That leaves one category of resignation that has not been explored by the Blair government, and that is taking the rap for making a mess of the job. But you have to go back a long way to find a cabinet minister who did that. Edwina Currie was only a junior health minister when her loose phrasing caused a food scare and cost her her job in 1988. For a cabinet scalp, you have to go back to Sir Thomas Dugdale, who resigned over the incomprehensible Crichel Down affair in 1954.

In all this, however, there are shades of grey, degrees of seriousness and, above all, the cumulative principle. Mandelson and Blunkett could have survived their second offences if their credit at the Bank of Credibility had not been depleted by their first resignations. Byers was driven from office by an accumulation of embarrassments.

It is that principle that will get Clarke if he does eventually go. It is the succession of damning headlines - now about serious crimes committed by people who should have been deported - that is undermining him. So far, though, the impact of the foreign prisoners debacle on public opinion has been mixed. Although two-thirds said Clarke should go in two polls on Friday, the damage done to the Government as a whole so far has been surprisingly light. A poll for The Politics Show today suggests that overall satisfaction with the Government increased slightly this month, from 27 to 33 per cent.

In the end, whether ministers stay or go depends on politics at its most raw. Clarke will go if staying would do more damage to the Government and the Prime Minister. His survival - or that of the next minister in the camera lights - does not and cannot be regulated by hard-and-fast rules. It depends on the interplay of forces between public opinion, the media and the Prime Minister, and the credibility and skill of the minister concerned.