Compare and contrast. We have Chris Smith, chairman of the Environment Agency, whose shortcomings can now be seen covering 23,000 acres of Somerset. And yet, when visiting yesterday, he did not say sorry (the word he used instead was ‘proud’). He says he sees no reason for him to resign, even when it is clear that the failures he has overseen have led to a spectacular catastrophe (we call for his resignation in this week’s Spectator).

Exhibit B is Mark Harper, who has just quit as immigration minister because he failed to spot that his cleaner had lied about having permission to work in Britain. She went to far as to produce papers saying she had indefinite leave to remain.  He obeyed the law, it doesn’t (as he said in his letter) expect employers to spot anything other than an obvious forgery. But he figured he should hold himself up to a higher standard, and later he had her checked out by the Home Office who found she was an illegal – so he has quit. As he says, he wasn’t blameless. He lost paperwork and should have had her properly checked out the moment he was sent to the immigration brief. (I have to admit admiring the nerve of the cleaner, hoodwinking a government minister for so long. But it was a high-risk strategy on her part.)

Normally, when someone resigns on a Saturday afternoon, you conclude that he has been caught midway through some deplorable debauch by one of the more enterprising Sunday newspapers. But in the exchange of letters, which Isabel posted earlier, it really does seem that this is not the case.

The Labour years gave us the chance to see several ministers who ought to have resigned hanging on for dear life – as the egregious Chris Smith is doing now. Harper’s resignation is a welcome return to the era of Lord Carrington, who quit over the Foreign Office’s failure to detect the threat to the Falklands even though he was personally blameless. Tomorrow’s Sunday press may prove me wrong but right now it seems that Mark Harper has brought back the concept of the honorable resignation. If so then, as Cameron says, he should be back in the front bench soon.

Tags: Chris Smith, Immigration, Mark Harper, Somerset Levels