When resignation doesn’t necessarily mean goodbye

The cover story in The Guardian’s G2 on Thursday was the story of Mark Harper’s former cleaner, who now faces deportation. It was a story that, when it broke, forced Mr Harper to resign from his post as Immigration Minister. It’s a pretty heart-rending tale, in which the lady in question now resides in an immigration removal centre and her detention forced her to miss her daughter’s wedding.

One of the central points of this article is that the lady in question is the biggest loser of the entire saga, noting that Mr Harper was returned to government in the Prime Minister’s recent reshuffle. But this, as a number of commentators in the national press have pointed out, is far from the only case in which a minister has left their post in less than auspicious circumstances only to return within years or, in this case, months – a departure from days in which ministerial careers could be permanently over if subject to personal scandal.

The prime example of a minister who resigned in invidious circumstances only to return to government is of course Lord Mandelson – but it’s worth remembering that Dr Liam Fox was offered a ministerial post by Mr Cameron that he declined, having previously stood down from the position of Secretary of State for Defence. And even while the circumstances of his resignation are far different, and questions remain over the incident, Andrew Mitchell has been regularly touted in the press for a potential return to government.

Setting aside the situation Mr Harper’s former cleaner now faces, these examples demonstrate the tightrope Prime Ministers and their advisors must walk when considering whether to bring former ministers in from the cold, weighing up the talents and merits of the individual with the potential for public or political backlash at the reintegration of that individual. But it also poses fundamental questions about the nature of ministerial resignations in adverse circumstances: whether there is a point at which any one person can be considered to have ‘served their time’; whether one can be reintegrated and given a second chance too early; or whether resignation is sometimes an option taken too quickly and as an act of expediency to draw a line under a reputational crisis.