Government minister v local MP: Divided loyalties?

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MPs are elected to represent their constituents in Parliament but many - currently 100 of them - are also given jobs as ministers in the government. What happens when the two roles come into conflict?

It is a fact of life that politicians, even in the age of 24-hour news, cannot be in two places at one time.

But for ministers, who have a double life serving the government and their constituencies, it is not uncommon for their sat-navs to point in two directions at once.

For most, this is one of the joys of the job, but for those who find their ministerial red boxes and constituency mail bags telling them different things, it can become a real headache.

This scenario must be all too familiar to the now former transport secretary Justine Greening.

She was moved to another post by David Cameron following suggestions - made both by business and some Conservatives colleagues - that she was unable to be an "honest broker" in the debate about the UK's future aviation needs.

Local campaigner

The reason? Before she became a minister and took over the transport brief, she was a vocal opponent of Heathrow expansion as MP for Putney - a constituency which is under the airport's flight path.

In contrast, her replacement Patrick McLoughlin was said to be "unfettered" and carrying "no baggage" on the issue - his Derbyshire constituency is a long way from London.

Miss Greening is not the only serving minister to have found themselves under strain when it comes to balancing their national and local responsibilities.

Justine Greening at Heathrow Airport Transport secretary Justine Greening faced a dilemma that would not happen in the US and other countries

Cheryl Gillan lost her job as Welsh Secretary in the recent reshuffle but it has been her stance on an English transport issue which has really attracted attention.

Her Chesham and Amersham constituency is in the middle of the route of the planned high-speed rail line between London and Birmingham, making her a lightning rod for its critics.

She is said to have been instrumental in securing improvements to the route to reduce its impact. Some have speculated she might use her return to the backbenches to come out against the scheme.

But should ministers ever be faced with the question of who to put first - their government colleagues or their constituents?

Start Quote

There are some things that are impossible to balance”

End Quote Andy Slaughter Labour MP

Labour's Andy Slaughter, who resigned as a ministerial aide in 2009 over his opposition to a third runway at Heathrow, says he found himself in an irreconcilable position as a member of the government and an MP representing a seat in West London.

"Justine Greening was a lot more exposed than I was because she was a cabinet minister and transport secretary," the MP for Hammersmith says.

"There are sometimes things that are impossible to balance.

"Things you are personally concerned about, things that your constituents are concerned about and things you are mandated to do as a government."

'Particular care'

Think tank the Institute for Government says the UK is relatively unusual among major democracies in giving politicians both executive and representative responsibilities.

"It is not just the US. In lots of other European states, MPs are officially barred from being ministers at the same time," says the think tank's Akash Paun.

As Tory MP Douglas Carswell pointed out in a recent blog, the process used to be rather different.

"Until the First World War, when a backbencher was asked to join the government, they had to resign their seat and win a by-election because they were deemed to be changing sides," he wrote.

The UK's political system ramps up the pressure further on ministers by making them accountable for decisions at a local level affecting their constituents' daily lives.

Start Quote

Ministers do have two hats to wear and to some extent they do have divided loyalties”

End Quote Akash Paun Institute for Government

"It reflects the quite centralised nature of our constitution that decisions on issues such as hospital closures are taken in Whitehall," says Akash Paun.

So how far can ministers go when it comes to defending their constituency interests?

According to the ministerial code, where ministers have to take decisions which might affect their constituencies, they must take "particular care" to avoid any possible conflict of interest.

In practice, this means informing their permanent secretary - the top civil servant in their department - of anything contentious that might crop up.

In the case of junior ministers, the guidelines stress that "responsibilities should be arranged" to avoid any conflict of interest.

'No alternative'

In layman's language, this means ensuring the rail or roads minister do not find themselves in the invidious position of deciding whether a new route should pass through or skirt round their backyard.


  • Ministers are free to make their views about constituency matters known to the responsible minister
  • They must make clear that they are acting as their constituents' representative and not as a minister.
  • Ministers are advised to take particular care in cases relating to planning applications or other similar issues
  • Once a decision has been announced, it should be accepted without question or criticism.

Secretaries of State such as Ms Greening, who are responsible for every decision taken by their department, do not have such a get-out clause.

Akash Paun says it is a "well-accepted convention" that ministers can also lobby their colleagues on issues like hospital closures and planning decisions which have a direct bearing on their constituents.

In 2006, the then cabinet minister Hazel Blears defended her decision to take part in a protest over plans to close part of a hospital in her constituency - a result of a government-backed shake-up - by saying her "first and foremost job" was to represent her constituents.

And last year Iain Duncan Smith raised eyebrows by signing a petition on the doorstep of No 10 opposing the closure of A&E and maternity units at a hospital in his east London constituency.

In such situations, the code states that ministers must make it clear they are acting on behalf of their constituents and not on behalf of their department.

But Andy Slaughter, who is now a shadow justice minister, says this distinction is "absolutely not clear enough" to the public.

"Iain Duncan Smith has campaigned very hard and sincerely about hospital closures in his constituency," he argues.

"It does look, to some extent, like hypocrisy because it is against what his government is doing.

"But what is the alternative? In the end you have to say this is what I am going to do and the public can make their mind up."

'Sane and in touch'

One former Conservative MP and government whip says Miss Greening found herself in a "very awkward" position but believes there is little chance of escaping such a scenario in a parliamentary system.

He says he would not want the UK to follow the US by separating executive and legislative functions and divorcing ministers from constituency responsibilities to spare their blushes occasionally.

Minister arriving for a Cabinet meeting Ministers must make it clear on whose behalf they are lobbying their colleagues

"Having constituents breathing down your neck keeps you sane and in touch," says the ex-MP, who asked not be named.

Since Miss Greening's move to International Development Secretary the government has announced a commission to review how to expand UK aviation capacity. This is seen as paving the way for the possibility of a third Heathrow runway forming part of the Conservatives' next manifesto.

The prime minister insists that he will not break his pledge not to give the go-ahead for the new runway during the current parliament, but opponents of Heathrow expansion, such as London Mayor Boris Johnson, have said such a move was the only explanation for Miss Greening's demotion.

Even though she has been moved out of the firing line for now, Miss Greening is still bound by collective responsibility as a cabinet minister.

She, and other London MPs in the cabinet, would theoretically have to support any new policy which emerges on Heathrow from 2015 onwards or leave the government.

And Akash Paun believes it is "inevitable" that ministers will continue to face conflicts of interest.

"In general, the British government has been quite good at managing this kind of ethical dilemma. But ministers do have two hats to wear and to some extent they do have divided loyalties."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    I wonder how IDS handles the DWP appeal letters from Chingford and Woodford Green.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    maybe the pm should appoint misters for the cabinet outside of the pool of mp's let mp represent represent there area.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    MPs cant wait to get the extra payments and perks of the minister jobs they know that they can boost their earnings and when they fail a reshuffle clears them and they can go back to MPs wages,expenses and committee pay offs. as soon as an MP or councillor gets a second role there should be an election to cover that spot putting pressure on them not to mess up or be unemployed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    In the UK system, some local constituents suffer as constituency affairs are delegated to assistants, others gain as a minister has more influence. Not wishing to enter the Monarchy debate, there could be a lot to be said for the Prime Minister to be elected not as a local MP in a similar way as many Presidents. Also electing the Prime Minister would be more democratic than the current system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    143.Eddy from Waring
    33 Minutes ago
    ...especially George "Don't Give Up Your Evening Job" Osborne.


    Yes, you could say that, quite apart from the family firm, George Osborne has 3 jobs.

    It's no wonder he does all of them badly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    ...especially George "Don't Give Up Your Evening Job" Osborne.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    "Should government ministers give up being local MPs?"


    I think one or two should rather consider giving up being ministers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    The best and most sensible comment in this article comes from the former tory MP who said, "Having constituents breathing down your neck keeps you sane and in touch." That's an excellent point of view and should be self-evident. The fact that the speaker asked not to be named gives you an idea of the mood in our lobby-blighted democracy today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    If they are not elected local MPs, they should have no right being in government. Being responsible for their constituents should keep their feet on the ground so they have to listen to normal people rather than the usual big business lobbying which has corrupted our democracy. Justine Greening paid for it with her job, but she was right and Cameron and Osborne were wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    "MPs are elected to represent their constituents in Parliament but many are also given jobs as ministers in the government. What happens when the two roles come into conflict?"

    Simple they do whatever is best for them.
    Constituents only matter on one occasion. Election time.
    After that they are inconsequential.
    I've already made my mind up what to put on the balot paper.


  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    #137 Bert. Too right – Scottish independence will save taxpayers on both sides of the border a lot of money. The whole Condem Scottish Office is a complete waste of money. It represents a government that wasn’t elected by Scottish people to represent Scottish interests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    #134 Peter. Sorry bout Alex Salmond. But:

    If Scotland has a 1st minister why a Scottish Office, and a minister in Westminster in charge of it? Ditto Wales, and N Ireland. No wonder our taxes are so high, 2-3 people doing the same 'job', and earning more in a week than I do in six months.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    Although the balancing of being a minister and a decent MP is a tricky one I'm just more concerned that there are 100 minister's! how on earth can the government be held to account if so many of them are part of it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    I think our current cabinet should just give up full stop. Most MPs are in it for themselves first, party second and constituents somewhere down the pecking order.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    #130 Bert
    To be fair to Alex Salmond he stood down as an MP at the last General Electcion in 2010. However, he was an MP as well as an MSP and First Minister between 2007 and 2010!

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    MPs should be accountable to their constituants. Ministers should serve in parliament only and be accountable to the whole country. NO outside financial interests. Starting salary £52K and NO expenses. ALL lobbying should cease. Any MP who has had involvement in companys such as
    should be SACKED.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    Mp's serve themselves false stop. Greedy, corrupt lieing awful people that's our polititans and any body who thinks or says otherwise is an idiot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    If they cannot do both it's because system is run like that intentionally.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    All politicians should only have one job. I think Alex Salmond is still an MP at Westminster, and 1st Minister in Scotland. Also if Scotland has a 1st minister why a Scottish Office, and a minister in Westminster in charge of it? Ditto Wales, and N Ireland. No wonder our taxes are so high, 2-3 people doing the same 'job', and earning more in a week

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    We should have proportional representation, you shouldn't "win" a county.

    All votes should count towards what parties make up the central government. MPs should not have counties. Local councils should be separate from the national politics.


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