General election round-up: Huge gambles, stupid punts and WFH revelations

Civil Service World looks at what the main parties have said this week – and the impact for the civil service
Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak take part in Wednesday's TV debate Photo: BBC/CSW

By Jim Dunton

28 Jun 2024

Five whole days of campaigning are all that now remain until polling stations open in schools and church halls across the nation, bringing fresh turmoil into the lives of voters and dogs alike. So we're just under six days from a definitive answer on which major party's electoral gambles have paid off.

Prime minister Rishi Sunak's gambles include attempting to put some clear blue water between the Conservatives' record from 2010 to 2022 and his 20-month stint at the helm; successfully scaremongering about the likelihood of tax rises under Labour; and being taken at his word in pledging new tax breaks – in some cases reversing recent Conservative policy decisions.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer's gamble is that cautiously shadowing the current government's delusionally optimistic view of the nation's finances will combine with a desire for change in the electorate that gives him the keys to No.10. It is the so-called "Ming vase" strategy, and the 2024 version requires economic growth to wipe away the need to hike taxes, make cuts or break so-called fiscal rules.

Not for the first time in the general-election campaign, independent think tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies this week pointed out that neither Conservatives nor Labour are being entirely open about the state of the nation's finances.

Speaking at a press briefing on the main parties' manifestos on Monday, IFS director Paul Johnson said that barring a "get lucky" scenario, whichever party takes office following the election will face a "stark choice".

Johnson described the scenario as a "trilemma": "raise taxes by more than they've told us in their manifesto, or implement cuts to some areas of spending, or break their fiscal rules and allow debt to rise for longer”.

Johnson said he believed that a Labour government in particular would find it hard to cut public spending in the absence of a "get lucky" bonus from economic growth. He cited public-sector pay – and in particular that of the civil service – as an area that had already been subjected to sustained pressure over the past 14 years. The implication being that there's no room for further savings.

"How can we be in this world of high tax, high spending, but failing public services?" he asked. "The answer is, in large part, a £50bn increase in debt interest spending relative to forecasts, and a pretty big growth in the welfare budget over the last few years. We've also got rising health spending and a defence budget which for the first time in decades is going to grow, not shrink, and the reality of demographic change, and of course the need to transition to net zero. Add in low growth and the after-effects of the pandemic and the energy price crisis and you've got a pretty toxic mix in public finances."

Earlier in the day, Labour front-bencher Nick Thomas-Symonds suggested that the party may need to reappraise its spending plans if it gains power after 4 July.  "We may open the books and discover the situation is even worse than it is at the moment," he told Times Radio. "We've never hidden from that."

The IFS's Johnson was withering in his assessment. "The books are wide-open, fully transparent," he said. "That really won't wash." 

On Wednesday night Sunak and Starmer were asked about the IFS's concerns over their spending plans in the BBC leaders' debate. Neither directly addressed the question – although Sunak said the IFS had previously been wrong about the Conservatives' ability to make savings from welfare spending.

Pressure on prisons, hospitals and schools

The spending pressures facing the next government were this week underscored by a stark communication on behalf of the senior officials who run the nation's prisons.

On Tuesday the Prison Governors' Association said jails are "a matter of days" from running out of space, adding: “within a matter of weeks, it will put the public at risk".

The body said the only short-term solution was to create space by lowering the bar for the early-release of prisoners. Not something either Sunak or Starmer would be keen to voice support for ahead of polling day. The PGA  proposes routine release of prisoners after they have served 40% of their sentence.

According to the PGA, the move would be "far safer" than a situation in which the police and courts had nowhere to send new offenders.

In an open letter to political party leaders, PGA president Tom Wheatley – along with vice presidents Carl Davies and Martin Icke – said successive governments had subjected the UK prison system to "shameful" resourcing constraints.

"As an unprotected department, austerity hit the Ministry of Justice and our prisons hard," they said. "There has been insufficient money available to maintain the current prison estate, let alone build new prisons or create additional space early enough. New prison places which are planned are too little and too late to avert prisons running out of space. It is simply not possible to squeeze any more people into a full and overcrowded prison system, and to think this is possible is fanciful at best."

A government spokesperson said public safety was ministers' top priority. "The police and prison service have long established processes to manage short-term capacity issues," they said. "The civil service is working closely with partners across the justice system to make sure we have the prison places needed to keep people safe."

On Wednesday, an Institute for Government report on capital spending in the public sector said the NHS, schools and prisons all needed a new deal after 14 years of under-investment. It said the current spending plans set out by both the Conservatives and Labour implied further cuts over the course of the next parliament.

The think tank said that the next multi-year spending review should provide a more "capital-intensive mix" of spending than has been the case in spending reviews of recent years. It also wants to see greater parliamentary scrutiny of departments' capital-spending plans – including details of the extent to which settlements provided meet requests and what the remedy will be when insufficient funding is provided.

The IfG said that HM Treasury guidance should be amended to allow departmental accounting officers to seek ministerial directions when they believe a decision not to maintain assets to a sufficient standard reflects poor value for money in the longer term.

Civil service job cuts don't necessarily save cash

Yesterday, civil service leaders' union the FDA noted that research from the Global Payroll Association had found that HM Revenue and Customs' paybill increased by £5.5m in the year to March 2024, despite a reduction in full-time equivalent headcount of 2,594 over the period.

Cutting civil service numbers back to pre-pandemic levels is a pledge in the Conservative Party manifesto. One of only three mentions of the phrase "civil service" in the whole document. Reducing headcount to 2019 levels would now mean axing around 86,000 roles by Civil Service World's calculations.

The Conservatives previously stated that shrinking the size of the civil service would fund the party's commitment to increase defence spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product by the end of the next parliament.

Labour appears to be agnostic on the size of the civil service, and has promised to increase headcount at HMRC by around 5,000 in a bid to increase compliance work – a move it anticipates will boost receipts by some £5bn a year by the end of the parliament.

Matt Barrow, the FDA's national officer for HMRC, said the department had needed to depend on overtime to compensate for lost capacity in 2023-24.

"HMRC now manages more complex tax administration, and does so more frequently, than in previous decades," he said. "Despite this, our members consistently return significantly more money to the treasury than is spent on their employment."

Labour's proposals to beef up HMRC are in line with plans set out in the union's recent Funding the Nation Report.

Tories seek to shrink Scottish Government headcount

In a manifesto tailored specifically at voters north of the border, the Conservative Party this week outlined proposals to cut back the Scottish Government's headcount.

The Focused on Your Priorities document, put out by the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party says: "Over recent years, the size of the devolved civil service has grown faster than the workforce of our NHS or local government. At Holyrood, we would reduce the size of the devolved civil service to save money and increase the private sector workforce."

The reality is that next week's vote is about Westminster, not Holyrood. Nevertheless, Conservative MSP Craig Hoy was the lead voice in a Daily Mail story that put a figure of 10,800 on the number of Scottish Government jobs the Scottish Conservatives want to cut. Hoy also shared a link to the story on X, suggesting endorsement of the figures.

The numbers were based on official data that put Scottish Government headcount at 26,800 as of the first quarter of this year, versus 16,000 at the start of 2017.

At least some of the increase can be accounted for by the creation of Social Security Scotland in 2018. Many Department for Work and Pensions and HMRC staff transferred to work for the new body.

JRM lets his team WFH? WTF!

Former Cabinet Office minister Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg drew fresh fire for his oft-stated opposition to flexible working this week.

The Conservative Party candidate is seeking a fifth term in parliament, in a rejigged version of his former North East Somerset constituency, and was hosting an Independent reporter on the campaign trail.

Rees-Mogg made a bombshell admission when quizzed about the presence of a photo of former Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson on the wall of his constituency office – but no trace of current PM Rishi Sunak, or predecessor Liz Truss.

"Boris went up when he became leader, replacing Theresa May," he explained. "We'd always had the leader up. Covid came and we've hardly used the office since."

During his time as Cabinet Office minister, Rees-Mogg was responsible for a number of back-to-the-office ruses targeting civil servants. Perhaps the most notorious was his decision to tour government offices and leave 'Post-it' notes with messages encouraging officials back to the workplace on unoccupied desks.

Dave Penman, general secretary of civil service leaders' union the FDA, said Rees-Mogg's comments were an astonishing example of double standards. "Turns out @Jacob_Rees_Mogg is a massive… hypocrite," he wrote on X.

An accompanying video shows Rees-Mogg suggesting that he'll wait until 5 July to decide whether to put a photo of current PM Sunak on the wall.

"We'll see how much we we need it after the election," he said.

Rees-Mogg added: "When he's returned comfortably  as prime minister."

Nutters for a flutter

Sixty-plus years ago, early adverts for Premium Bonds featured a commentary along the lines of "we all love a bit of a flutter, don't we?". If we have learned anything over the past three weeks, it's that some love a flutter on general elections more than others. And few more than would-be MPs and members of the Metropolitan Police.

So far, two Conservative candidates and one Labour candidate have been jettisoned by their respective political motherships as a result of bets placed on either the election date or their performance at the hands of the electorate. Two Conservative Party officials have also stepped back from their duties as a result of Gambling Commission investigations into bets placed on the general election.

Yesterday, the Metropolitan Police confirmed that seven of its officers had been found to have placed bets on the timing of the general election. One, a constable attached to the force's Royalty and Specialist Protection Command, was arrested 11 days ago on suspicion of misconduct in public office.

The Met said its joint investigation with the Gambling Commission would see allegations of improper betting split into two categories: breaches of Section 42 of the Gambling Act 2005 that can be solely categorised as cheating and bets in which additional offences could apply.

The force said the offence of misconduct in public office was one example. Police constables, serving MPs and civil servants can all potentially face charges of misconduct in public office, although party officials may fall outside the boundaries of the charge.

The Met said its Specialist Crime Command would determine what further action was required in relation to the ongoing scandal. It said the number of more complex cases with multiple offences was "likely to be much smaller" than those solely covered by the Gambling Act 2005.

One demonstrable truth underlined by the scandal is that in a general election campaign potentially game-changing issues can spring out of nowhere, grow legs and run like Olympians.

Five days can be a very long time in politics.

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