It seems that increasingly governance is about managerialism, and the perceived competent management of the bureaucracy of state, than driving forward an ideological vision; perhaps it was ever thus and those who deny the fact are idealists kidding themselves. However the recent criticism of Alastair Darling highlights some of these issues.
Darling's competence is called into question because a junior civil servant did not follow sensible procedure when handling sensitive information. I presume the junior was sacked, his boss resigned, but should the minister join them? Do we expect the Minister to accept responsibility for everything that occurs within departments for which he is nominally responsible or is he the person that reports to parliament. In other words can and should a Minister abrogate responsibility on departmental minions or accept responsibility for the fact that there are insufficient checks on procedure?
And this is not solely a New Labour problem, though it is an easy way to attack a government that seems to be losing public support for existing (the boredom with this lot factor). It was this same question that Michael Howard faced as Home Secretary when prisoners wandered out of Dartmoor with their own set of keys. His role, and whether he had personally intervened in guiding the governor, was famously the subject of the famous Paxman interview where the question was asked a ridiculous amount of times.
Hence the question can be depoliticised as being about what any Minister should do. Should we set a standard for competence that can be deemed the responsibility of either the department or the Minister? Failure of policy seems logical, though of course proof of failure is difficult; but if a Minister sets out guidance which is then not followed, should they be responsible. What would happen within a company? What is something a Director of CEO would resign for? Would they face political point scoring, as every minister has throughout the last 30-40 yrs, or media pressure to be accountable?
The bottom line, is Darling responsible? Should he go? If so, on what grounds?