Uncertainty can cloud any election campaign in Whitehall. But the fog is thicker than everby Catherine Haddon / November 8, 2019 / Leave a comment
There will be no MPs to tread the corridors of the Palace of Westminster during the 25-day election campaign. In departments across Whitehall, however, civil servants remain in post, ministers in office, and the government continues to govern.
But this is anything but business as usual. Once the campaign kicks in, restrictions are put in place that mean ministers must “observe discretion” when announcing policies, resources must not be redirected into political activity and major decisions must be held back. Civil servants will also be thinking about the future and how their own roles might change—within hours—after the election result is announced.
At the highest levels of Whitehall, scenarios are played out for a range of outcomes. Where would a returning Tory government focus its energies? How might Labour redeploy Whitehall’s resources? What combination of policies might kick in if we see another minority government or coalition? The top official, Cabinet Secretary Mark Sedwill, has to prepare for every eventuality—and consider what advice to give party leaders and the Palace if a messy hung parliament ensues. He will prepare a document for both a returning and an incoming PM setting out immediate decisions to be taken by No 10.
Policy briefs will also have been worked up for any new prime minister. In February 1974, amid the three-day week, there were 15 such briefs—including on the ongoing development of the nuclear deterrent, housing and Concorde. Five years on, after the Winter of Discontent, the civil service worked up 12 relatively brief and subject-specific documents in preparation for Thatcher’s possible victory. But these days, briefings can run to hundreds of pages. And the civil service must also consider how many different versions to think about—in 2010, up until the first television leaders’ debate, limited focus was placed on what Liberal Democrat policy might mean for a future government. It turned out to be rather important.
So how can civil servants get real insight into opposition parties’ thinking? One way is formal access talks, but these are often only with the main opposition party, and granted at the PM’s discretion. Boris Johnson only accepted Labour’s request to meet with senior civil servants shortly before…