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How the civil service prepares for transitions of power

With an election looming, the UK's most senior civil servants must get ready for all eventualities.

By Samir Jeraj and Harry Clarke-Ezzidio

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2023. It was reported this week (17 January 2024) that Keir Starmer has written to the cabinet secretary to begin access talks ahead of a possible election victory.

It was election night 1992, and all eyes were on the seat of Billericay in Essex. Robin Butler, now Baron Butler of Brockwell, was anxiously watching the results come in. As chief secretary to the Cabinet Office, the most senior civil servant in the country, it had been Butler’s job to prepare the civil service for an incoming Labour administration. In case the opposition won, Butler sent the Labour leader Neil Kinnock and his chief of staff questionnaires and matrices to get information on everything from living arrangements to the number of ministers he could expect.

But the Conservatives held on to Billericay, a signal that Kinnock was on course for defeat and John Major would remain at No 10. All the preparation for a change of government “was wasted labour, and a very sad moment”, the 85-year-old recalls.

Back in 2023, a general election is expected in the next 18 months, and polls indicate there will be a change at the top of government, from Conservative to Labour. If that happens, whether the result is a Labour majority or hung parliament and coalition, staff in the UK’s impartial civil service will play a vital role in ensuring there is as little disruption to the business of government as possible.

In 1997, only five years after Labour’s loss of Billericay, Butler saw Tony Blair’s New Labour win a landslide victory after 18 years of Conservative government. As in 1992, months before Labour’s win, Butler had already been discussing policy matters with the soon-to-be new PM in “access talks”, which can take place as early as 15 months ahead of an election.

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Those talks enable the opposition to give the civil service advance notice (or warning) of their policy priorities before taking power. “It’s not the civil service advising the opposition,” explains Butler, “it’s receiving rather than transmitting, so that if, the opposition party wins the general election, the civil service can help them to hit the ground running.”

Those preparations cover both the substance and the delivery of policy, explains Terence Burns, who was permanent secretary of HM Treasury, the most senior civil servant in that department, from 1991-98. The 79-year-old worked through the transition of Major to Blair.

“The potential government should do its best to give information to the Treasury,” he says. “That will enable it to get off to a good start, and to be prepared to spend the first few days, heads down, and really sorting out some major issues.”

Policy announcements, speeches, and manifestos in the run-up to polling day also give civil servants an indication of what to expect. Ahead of the 1997 election, for example, Burns remembers how the Treasury worked up its own version of Labour’s manifesto commitment to a windfall tax on privatised utility companies.

The advanced work paid off. When Gordon Brown took office as chancellor, Burns and his team had four days over a bank-holiday weekend to prepare how to implement policies such as the Bank of England’s independence, tax credits and the windfall tax, the first of which had not yet been announced. “It was completely frantic,” Burns recalls, “but we were able to do it because the Labour Party was very well prepared – Ed Balls [then an adviser to Brown] was very well prepared – and had been able to communicate to us the sorts of things that we needed to be warned about.”

Not that civil servants don’t have personal views on the feasibility of a particular policy. During the access talks before the 2010 election, the former chief secretary to the cabinet, Gus O’Donnell, now 70, was not convinced by David Cameron’s pledge on limiting migration. “I was thinking, how on Earth do you get migration down into the tens of thousands,” he tells Spotlight. “You’re not supposed to give him advice on policies, but you are allowed to use your eyebrows.”

Personal relationships add layers of complexity to access talks. “Sometimes, you’ll know [an] individual very closely,” begins Nick Macpherson, 63, who was permanent secretary of HM Treasury from 2005-16. “In 2015, Ed Balls was the shadow chancellor. I had worked with him very closely between 1997-2004, when he’d left the Treasury having previously been chief economic adviser there.”

Macpherson was appointed permanent secretary by Gordon Brown, and worked with Balls again when the latter became economic secretary to the Treasury in 2006 after being elected as an MP. So, Macpherson admits, it “would have been perfectly reasonable” for George Osborne, then shadow chancellor, to consider him a “Brown stooge” ahead of the 2010 vote. “Obviously, I wasn’t,” he quips.

Osborne and Macpherson didn’t know each other very well, but they would soon get acquainted. “Those talks were an opportunity to decide, I guess, on his part whether I’m the sort of person he could work with.” But the two “got on very well” for six years and are now friends.

“What tends to happen is when governments have been in power for a long time, as has happened on both the last two transitions of government… it is possible that [civil service] officials have… lost touch with what the main opposition party is about,” Macpherson adds. “But also, on the politicians’ side, especially if they hadn’t been in government before, there might be a level of distrust.”

[See also: The secret life of an election pledge]

There will be an “interesting” dynamic, Macpherson says, at the Treasury access talks with Labour for next year’s election, as “I suspect quite a few Treasury officials will know Rachel Reeves, because she [previously] worked out in Washington at the IMF”.

The briefs civil servants prepare for potential incoming governments cover all eventualities. Since the formation of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government in 2010, more work has been put into potential coalitions, according to O’Donnell. “Probably more junior staff are put on the idea of writing the incoming brief for a majority Lib Dem, or Green government, but it’s actually quite an interesting exercise,” he says.

Prior to 2010, the then-head of the Joint Intelligence Committee Alex Allan developed four scenarios for a hung parliament. “We then role-played this and completely failed to come up with a solution,” O’Donnell recalls. Civil servants had assumed politicians would steadfastly stick to their manifesto promises instead of compromising to work together.

But the day after the date for the 2010 election was announced, Macpherson reveals, Osborne asked him to visit. “He wanted to implement a programme of £6bn in-year cuts to pay for not going ahead with [Labour’s proposed] National Insurance increase. I attached a lot of priority to us getting that right,” Macpherson says of the Treasury’s planning. “And indeed, during the election campaign, we drew up a menu for the longer term of: ‘Do you want to have £30bn worth of cuts? £60bn of cuts, or £90bn of cuts?’” “Once you’ve got to £90bn [worth] of cuts, you did quite serious things like abolishing the Navy.”

With the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, the key challenge for O’Donnell was that, while there had been similarly formed governments in the devolved nations, and lots in Europe, there was no one alive in the UK who had worked or served in one at a national level.

“One of my brilliant concoctions was to think about a coalition committee, which would look at and manage the possible disagreements between the parties,” he says. In the end it was unnecessary, meeting just a few times as the respective political leaderships found a way of working together. “The politicians decided they could do it better, and they were right,” he says.

O’Donnell has a lot of praise for the leaders of all the main parties – Brown, Cameron and Clegg – following the 2010 election. Brown stayed on as prime minister until the new government was formed, despite Labour’s defeat at the polls: “I keep telling people, but they don’t want to write it: they all behaved incredibly well.”

If the polling is accurate, Labour will again win by a landslide at the next election – this time after 13 years of Conservative rule. The change of government would happen after the slow souring of relations between the Tories and Whitehall. Many ministers have, among other things, accused “the blob” of being “woke”, lazy and soft when it comes to aggressive work cultures, and there have been accusations of bullying – as well as denunciations that civil servants have a left-wing bias.

“Problems [between politicians and civil servants] have increased more recently,” says Macpherson. “So the question is: is this some aberration? Is it justified? Has the civil service failed to deliver? I don’t know what the answer is.” And it’s not as if civil servants will be able to rest easy under another party.

“A Labour government will have a very active agenda; it will want to achieve a lot very quickly. I don’t think anybody should assume just because it’s a Labour government that somehow it’s going to be easier,” he warns. Civil servants will doubtless face many difficulties under a potential Labour government that will have to grapple with rising prices, Brexit, the UK’s unbalanced economy, artificial intelligence regulation, climate change, among other challenges.

There will also be the independent inquiry into Britain’s Covid-19 response to deal with. The Cabinet Office has sought a judicial review into the investigation’s demand to see the unredacted correspondence between the former prime minister Boris Johnson and ministers, government officials and civil servants.

If Labour does win the election, Macpherson hopes the new government “will recognise and respect” the civil service’s “duties to previous administrations”. He is sure that Sue Gray, who will become Labour’s chief of staff in the autumn, “is a woman of integrity [who] will support whoever the cabinet secretary is in making that [smooth transition] happen”.

Nonetheless, Macpherson believes government transitions, though hard work, can be the highlight of a Whitehall career. “My advice to anybody who’s in the civil service is: ‘these are exciting times’,” he says. “You join the civil service at least once or twice in your working life – and if you stay around long enough, there’ll be a change of government.”

This piece first appeared in a Party Policy special Spotlight print issue. Read it here.

[See also: What will 2024 bring for the net zero transition?]

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