The best resignations of the decade
politics.co.uk counts down the best resignations of the decade.
By Ian Dunt
It hasn’t been a bad decade for political resignations, all things considered. There were far fewer images of the red-faced politician apologising with his humiliated wife behind him, which can only be a good thing for our collective sense of self-worth. But financial and foreign affairs crises took their toll, and among all the shameful moments, there are some proud and impressive acts of principle on show here. So before you give up all hope in British democracy, don’t forget the good guys. They are out there. Somewhere.
10: Estelle Morris
As far as resignations go, they don’t come more honest than this. Morris basically admitted she was incapable of running her department. In 1999, she promised her Tory shadow, David Willetts, that she would resign if literacy and numeracy targets were not improved. They weren’t. And then, with startling honour and candour – the sort that drives cynical hacks towards some hidden motivation – she promptly went ahead and resigned in October 2002. “I’ve learned what I’m good at and also what I’m less good at. I’m good at dealing with the issues and in communicating to the teaching profession. I am less good at strategic management of a huge department and I am not good at dealing with the modern media,” she wrote to Tony Blair.
9: Peter Mandelson
“If I can come back, we can come back,” Mandy told the weirdly receptive delegates of this year’s Labour conference. Indeed. Mandelson’s 2001 resignation was not particularly exciting in its own right, but when taken as part of the Mandy chronicles, it forms a key part of a remarkable career. His first resignation was on December 23rd 1998, after he failed to declare a £373,000 loan from fellow government man Geoffrey Robinson in the register of members’ Interests. His second was on January 24th 2001, following accusations of stepping in to help Srichand Hinduja’s citizenship application. Rather wonderfully, suspicions were raised after hacks realised Hinduja was funding the ‘Faith Zone’ in the Millennium Dome. And yet, and yet. The man’s now first secretary of state and arguably the most powerful individual in the country.
8: Alastair Campbell
Cambell’s resignation in 2003, during the height of the Hutton inquiry, signalled the end of a political era. The spin doctor who, along with Mandelson, represented the dark arts inside No 10, was gone. And yet, this was by far the most victorious resignation on this list. Despite document after document at the inquiry revealing the unpleasant inner workings of government, Campbell emerged unscathed. He descended the stairs to the television cameras when the final report was published and claimed to be vindicated. It was part of a process in which those who opposed the war – Andrew Gilligan, Greg Dyke, Piers Morgan – suffered the consequences, and one in which those who made the war happened escaped responsibility.
7: Charles Clarke
The foreign prisoners scandal was immense. Exactly 1,023 foreign prisoners had been freed without being considered for deportation. Among them were five people responsible for sexually abusing children and 57 who were responsible for violent assault. David Blunkett’s call for heads to roll was ironic given many of the releases had taken place while he was home secretary. Clarke’s offer of resignation to the prime minister was rejected, but he soon found himself cast into the wilderness in the next reshuffle. His departure was not of such considerable interest. The relevance of his exit lies in his behaviour afterwards. Freed of Cabinet responsibility, and endlessly loyal to Blair, Clarke turned into a permanent pain in Gordon Brown’s side. His jibes and outspoken comments to the press about Brown’s faults set the circumstance for more rebellious behaviour from others.
6: Clare Short
With overtones of Shakespearean tragedy, Short embodies the truth of the principle that you must always pick a side and stick to it, or risk being distrusted by all. After calling Blair “reckless” at numerous points in a TV interview ahead of the Iraq war, speculation built that the international development secretary would resign when it was confirm Britain would invade Iraq. She didn’t. On March 18th she confirmed she would stay in Cabinet. On the day of the invasion, protestors gathered in Parliament Square booed her name as speakers lambasted her. On May 12th, she resigned. That’s a devastating dither. She never recovered, neither as a pragmatic politician of principle, or as the conscience of Labour. There are ways to successfully resign. This wasn’t it.
5: Michael Martin
Special mention has to go to Michael Martin, not least of all for historical reasons. He was the first Speaker to be forced from his position since Sir John Trevor in 1695. He is also, to this day, the most high profile casualty of the expenses scandal, with his critical response to those MPs who attacked the system revealing to the public the vast chasm between their sentiments and those of the political class. But it was also memorable resignation because of his resignation speech, which, while not exactly soaring rhetoric, managed to express regret and also launch a controlled attack on the party leaders. Speaking about the opportunity to tackle the expenses crisis a year before, he said: “I wish party leaders would have shown then some of the leadership they have shown now.” The language was temperate. The sentiment was sharp as knives.
4: Tony Blair
Obvious perhaps, but Tony Blair’s resignation was still a seminal moment in recent political history. The rhetoric was unheard of, as if Blair was addressing a Republican rally. “This country is a blessed country. The British are special,” he said. “The world knows it, we know it, this is the greatest country on earth.” But the effects of his resignation – after years of speculation – were immediate. Brown undid some policies, such as those for super-casinos and cannabis. It was the last moment Labour would ride high. Soon, the financial crisis and Brown’s will-he-won’t-he approach to a general election would send Labour plummeting in the polls. But despite everything that has come since, you don’t find many people calling for the return of Blair.
3: James Purnell
Of all the resignations on this list, Purnell is probably the least well-known, even now. But his departure from Cabinet on June 4th 2009 nearly precipitated the breakdown of Labour. For hours, it seemed as if Brown would finally fall, but by that mad genetic survival instinct of his, he survived. “I now believe your continued leadership makes a Conservative victory more, not less likely,” Purnell wrote to the prime minister. He was the first senior member of government with the courage to openly attack Brown, instead of tacitly doing so, as David Miliband and Hazel Blears had tried. It was the most explosive resignation of Gordon Brown’s tenure, and, paradoxically, the moment at which it finally became clear that he would lead Labour into the general election.
2: David Davis
Not a hard one to pick. Davis scores highly simply on the basis that no one in Westminster had ever really seen anything like it before. As he read out his statement to the press, all of Westminster came to a halt. Researchers, MPs, peers, civil servants – all stared at their television with their jaws open. “This Sunday is the anniversary of the Magna Carta, the document that guarantees that most fundamental of British freedoms, habeas corpus, the right not to be imprisoned by the state without charge or reason. Yesterday this House decided to allow the state to lock up potentially innocent citizens for up to six weeks without charge,” he began, and immediately we knew we were watching something special. By the time his intention to run for his constituency seat on a civil liberties platform became clear, the point was fully made. Most pundits frantically tried to cast some cynical manoeuvre on his act of “political suicide”. But looking back, it really does appear genuine. It was the moment we realised Davis might just be the best home secretary Britain never had, although it took a resignation to show it.
1: Robin Cook
No surprises here, I’m afraid. In terms of timing, effect and pure rhetoric, Cook wins the prize for best resignation hands down. Here are the opening lines, which have gone down in history: “This is the first time for 20 years that I have addressed the House from the back benches. I must confess that I had forgotten how much better the view is from here.” It was seminal. He then dismantled every argument Blair had made for the war, one by one, with remarkable lucidity and moderation. “Ironically, it is only because Iraq’s military forces are so weak that we can even contemplate its invasion,” he continued. “We cannot base our military strategy on the assumption that Saddam is weak and at the same time justify pre-emptive action on the claim that he is a threat.” His points have since been roundly justified by the evidence which emerged, not least of all during the Iraq inquiry. “Nor is our credibility helped by the appearance that our partners in Washington are less interested in disarmament than they are in regime change in Iraq,” he told MPs. “The longer that I have served in this place, the greater the respect I have for the good sense and collective wisdom of the British people. On Iraq, I believe that the prevailing mood of the British people is sound. They do not doubt that Saddam is a brutal dictator, but they are not persuaded that he is a clear and present danger to Britain. I intend to join those tomorrow night who will vote against military action now. It is for that reason, and for that reason alone, and with a heavy heart, that I resign from the government.” Precise, rational, principled, dramatic, eloquent, wise and devastating: it was probably the finest resignation speech in British politics, and most certainly the best this decade. It will be remembered as long, possibly even longer, than the Iraq war itself.