Sedwill rejects McDonnell call to open pre-election talks with Labour now

Written by Richard Johnstone on 1 February 2019 in News
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Shadow chancellor John McDonnell tells cabinet secretary that failing to prepare for an incoming Labour government could repeat problems of Brexit planning

Photo: Photo Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill has rejected a call by shadow chancellor John McDonnell for the civil service to begin meeting senior Labour figures in order to prepare for a snap general election.

McDonnell wrote to Treasury permanent secretary Tom Scholar last November asking for a meeting with the department's most senior officials to discuss what Labour's first budget would look like, The Times has reported.

Sedwill, as the head of the civil service, formally refused the request the following month, although it is reported that McDonnell did not find this out until a week ago because of an "administrative oversight".


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Pre-election talks between the civil service and the opposition traditionally take place only in the period immediately before an election, known as purdah, and are authorised by the prime minister. Ahead of the snap election on 8 June 2017, Theresa May green lit talks with the Labour Party on 19 April, the same day parliament voted to trigger an election under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliament Act.

Sedwill cited the “well-established and longstanding convention” of waiting until an election has been called as his reason for refusing to ask the prime minister to approve talks.

“Because we are not in such a period, I have not sought permission from the prime minister for such contacts to take place,” he said. He did agree, however, to ask her for talks “promptly” in the event of an election at short notice.

However, in his reply, McDonnell said that not starting policy preparation for a Labour government risked repeating the lack of planning for a vote to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum, and urged him to reconsider.

“It is now clear that, given the government’s current precarious position, we may soon be facing a general election,” he said in a letter sent last week, according to the Times. “It is my understanding that all the political parties, including the Conservative Party, are indeed preparing for an early election.

“You will recall that there had been little or no preparation by the civil service for the potential of a leave vote in the referendum. It cannot be in the interest of anybody that the country is ill prepared for the decision of the electorate once again.”

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Richard Johnstone is CSW's deputy and online editor and tweets as @CSW_DepEd

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