The sordid story of Anna Soubry single-handedly killing off e-cigarettes and banning menthol cigarettes in the EU certainly raises that question. The must-see video of Soubry blundering away in front of a House of Commons committee as she tries to weasel out of trouble for casting the decisive vote on the Tobacco Products Directive without consulting parliament has been widely viewed, but Soubry remains in her job.
Soubry gave the committee the following story. She and her right-hand man, Andrew Black (Department of Health), felt that it was imperative for them to act unilaterally because they felt passionately about the legislation and were worried that it would pass to the Lithuanian presidency. They both believed that the Lithuanians would not pursue the TPD with as much zeal as the Irish and that—as Soubry said—"the moment was now". Soubry wasn't worried about the implications for e-cigarettes because e-cigarettes had been dropped from the Directive.
A couple of problems here. Firstly, e-cigarettes had not been dropped from the Directive (as the committee informed the squirming junior minister). Secondly— as she has recently revealed—there was no danger of the Lithuanians dropping the Directive. Indeed, they are pursuing it zealously as we speak.
This is what Soubry told to the committee in July...
Stephen Phillips: You also agree, as I understand it, with Mr Connarty that if the draft Directive had not been dealt with at that stage, it would have continued over to the Lithuanian presidency, yes?
Anna Soubry: If I may say, I do not think it is as simple as that. This was an important moment for us.
Stephen Phillips: Let us come back to why you believe a decision needed to be taken at that stage.
Anna Soubry: Good, because I would like the opportunity.
Stephen Phillips: As a matter of procedure, if no decision had been taken at that stage, the draft Directive would have been carried over to the Lithuanian presidency, yes?
Andrew Black: Mr Phillips, it was not a case of a decision being made or referred to another time. The Irish presidency put the issue on the agenda and drove forward the discussion. I think it was a matter for the Minister whether to take a proactive part. I do not think those discussions-
Stephen Phillips: Mr Black, I do not want to interrupt you, but I actually asked a different question. I do not mind whether you or the Minister answers, but as a matter of procedure, the draft Directive would have been carried over to the Lithuanian presidency. That is right, is it not?
Andrew Black: Yes, if they had picked it up.
Anna Soubry: If they had picked it up, but it would be a matter for the Lithuanian presidency.
Stephen Phillips: Therefore, Minister, in order to justify the decision to override scrutiny, you must demonstrate, must you not, that it was important to take a position, at the time that you did take a position, without abstaining. Can we agree on that?
Anna Soubry: Yes. I did not want to abstain.
Stephen Phillips: What indications had you had from UKRep, or any of your advisers, that either of those matters that led you to the view that you needed to take a decision at that stage would have shifted if the Directive had carried over to the Lithuanian presidency?
Anna Soubry: I did not think it would go over. I thought, "Now is the moment," and that was not just my view. It was also the view of my officials, and it was the view of all the Ministers I had had the opportunity to speak to. We were of the view that now was the moment.
Stephen Phillips: Why?
Anna Soubry: We did not believe that it would be taken over by the Lithuanians. We thought that the Irish had taken such a strong lead on it that this was the moment when the nettle needed to be seized. I do not think there were ever suggestions that the Lithuanians would have wanted to take it up. Now was the moment.
It is clear from this that Soubry's excuse for bypassing parliamentary scrutiny was that she felt that the TPD would not be taken up by the Lithuanians and would therefore perish. As a keen supporter of the Directive, she felt compelled to act hastily to prevent this happening. This is not a legitimate justification, but it is at least a reason.
However, in a document published this month by the European Scrutiny Committee, there are two corrections from Soubry. The first addresses e-cigarettes, which she accepts had not "fallen out" of the Directive. The second concerns the Lithuanians, her opinion of which has changed dramatically in the last two months.
"I am sorry that I did not accurately reflect the position of the Lithuanian Presidency on the Directive in my evidence and I would be grateful if a footnote, using the following wording, could be included in the corrected transcript at an appropriate place:
'During my evidence, I may have given the impression that the Lithuanian Presidency was not planning to prioritise the Directive. I have learned that the Lithuanians are keen to maintain the excellent progress on the Directive in Council made by the Irish."
Did she really not know the Lithuanians' intentions? If she didn't why didn't she find out? And why was she so confident when she spoke to the committee eight weeks ago? Does she act entirely on guesswork or is this just another shaggy dog story?
Incompetent or dishonest? You decide. Either way, surely not fit for office after this fiasco.