Sunak clears civil service to hold pre-election access talks with Labour Party

Cabinet secretary Simon Case will “oversee” discussions between officials and Keir Starmer’s team
Photo: GOV.UK

By Jim Dunton

12 Jan 2024

Prime minister Rishi Sunak has approved the start of access talks between the Labour Party and civil servants ahead of the upcoming general election, the Cabinet Office has confirmed.

Meetings between senior figures in the main opposition party and departmental permanent secretaries in the runup to a general election give a potential incoming government the opportunity to discuss their plans – and help civil servants prepare for change.

A general election must be held by January 2025, and Sunak last week said his “working assumption” was that the vote would take place in the second half of this year.  Think-tank the Institute for Government had already called for access talks with Labour to begin as soon as possible, noting that they began 16 months before the 1997 and 2010 general elections.

Yesterday, the Cabinet Office confirmed that Sunak has now given the green light for talks to commence between Labour leader Keir Starmer’s top team and senior civil service leaders.

"In line with the long-standing process set out in the cabinet manual, the prime minister has authorised access talks between the official opposition and civil service,” a spokesperson said.

“The cabinet secretary will oversee and arrange these discussions.”

Cabinet secretary Simon Case has only just returned to work after several weeks of absence due to ill health.

The nature of access talks can vary, and in 2019 then-prime minister Boris Johnson allowed the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party to hold talks with senior civil servants.

Writing in Civil Service World at the time IfG programme director Catherine Haddon said talks usually take place away from departments to avoid interference with ongoing work to support the government.

“Some shadows will bring detailed policy plans and even draft legislation, as the Conservatives did for the academies programme in 2010. Others might be more of a getting-to-know-you exercise,” she said at the time.

“The civil service are restricted in what they say. They can’t share insights into current government plans, nor give policy advice. Permanent secretaries are supposed to be in ‘listening mode’.  And as they continue to serve ministers, they also have to be careful about how the talks are perceived.”

Sunak’s comments last week about an election in the second half of the year followed speculation that the PM had been contemplating a May election. Some commentators noted he had not ruled out a spring election.

Yesterday former chancellor George Osborne predicted Sunak would set a general election date of 14 November.

Speaking on the Political Currency podcast he hosts with former Labour cabinet minister Ed Balls, Osborne said the idea that Sunak was contemplating a May general election at a time when he is 20 points behind in the polls was a “non-starter”.

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