Transition tips from a seasoned cabinet secretary

Gus O’Donnell on some key issues likely to face civil servants before and after 4 July
Gus O'Donnell, then cabinet secretary, with newly elected prime minister David Cameron in No.10 on 11 May 2010. Photo: Associated Press/Alamy Stock Photo

By Lord O'Donnell

25 Jun 2024


Civil servants are working frantically to prepare for all possible outcomes of the general election on 4 July. Here are some reflections based on my experience of several "transitions" over the last three decades.

Anticipating the result

It is crucial not to presume that the polls are right. I remember 1992, when even the exit polls suggested that the Conservatives would not get an overall majority. As it happened, John Major ended up with the highest ever popular vote in UK electoral history, though thanks to the distribution of Labour and Liberal Democrat votes his majority was actually quite small. The lessons are clear: be ready for all possible results and keep an eye on the areas that matter; just looking at the gap between the overall numbers of people saying they will vote Labour and those saying they will vote Conservative could be a misleading guide to the outcome of the election.

Briefing the incumbents

It is usually easiest to prepare a brief for the continuation of the party in office. Were Mr Sunak to be returned to Downing Street he would have beaten considerable odds and would have a strong mandate to pursue whatever is in his manifesto. Some commentators have been suggesting that the Conservatives are making proposals only to put pressure on Labour to match them, and that if they were to win themselves they might not go ahead with these policies. So be ready to question how much of the manifesto a new Conservative administration really wants to implement.

Briefing Labour

A change to Labour will involve many MPs becoming ministers for the first time. Remember that these people are humans, not robots. They will have been campaigning relentlessly for weeks, if not months, and will face formidable new career and lifestyle challenges. For example, a prime minister Starmer would have to adapt to the stress of a new job, a new home and the reality that he is ultimately responsible for authorising the use of our nuclear deterrent, all in his first 24 hours. In addition, if he wins, there will be countless telephone calls from world leaders wanting to congratulate him on his achievement, all of which will potentially provide opportunities for constructive dialogue. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will provide briefs to make sure none of these conversations are wasted.

Meanwhile, the hapless private secretary will be wondering how to fit in calls from relatives in between, and how to screen out bogus “friends”.

A global awakening

Just as he is trying to settle in, the new prime minister will be heading off to Washington for the NATO summit (9-11 July). His briefing pack will be extensive: Russia, Ukraine, the Middle East, the race for the US presidency, European defence spending. There is a lot to take in, and little time to prepare. Then there is the small matter of hosting the fourth European Political Community summit at Blenheim Palace on 18 July, an event scheduled to focus on energy, infrastructure, connectivity, countering disinformation and migration. You can bet that many commentators will try to infer how a Labour prime minister is going to approach our relationship with the EU.

Information overload

In my experience of transitions, the civil service is good at preparing detailed and comprehensive briefings, but sometimes neglects to find ways of helping a new minister absorb all the information. I hope this time we can call on new techniques; why not, for example, record an interesting podcast on key policy issues that the minister can listen to in the government car on the way home?

It’s crucial in the first few days for civil servants to establish how their ministers like to work, and to seek to build mutual respect and trust. Ministers should be made to feel they can ask the “silly” questions; they won’t thank you for papers full of acronyms and jargon. Make sure private secretaries ask ministers for feedback on the submissions they’re given, on the conduct of those early meetings and on how they feel about the induction process generally.

Ready, steady go!

The surprise timing of this election means that a new government will have only a short period to engage with parliament before it breaks for the summer recess. Indeed, about one third of the first 100 days will take place while parliament isn’t sitting, which will allow time for the civil service to make up for any shortfall in preparation resulting from the access talks being cut short. There is a lot to be done on policy development and implementation. The good news is that this is fascinating work. The bad news is that a lot will need to be done in August. So be ready to cancel the summer holidays, or at least cut them short.

Remember, too, that Labour’s manifesto may not contain all of the party’s aspirations. The manifesto of 1997, for example, didn’t promise an independent central bank, so when that policy was announced soon after the election, the Treasury had its work cut out assessing how to do it.

A hung parliament

The polls suggest a hung parliament is unlikely but it is important not to rule this out. There will be guidance on what to do in the official records of what happened in 2010, supplemented by the memoirs of some senior political figures at the time. (I’m always happy to answer questions about what really went on!). We prepared quite well, but much did not go according to plan. For example, I had envisaged that the committee for conflict resolution would have members from each party in the ratio of the number of seats they had won. However, this idea was rapidly superseded by the "quad": two members from each party with the common thread that they all trusted each other. The key to forming a stable coalition is trust and respect among the key players.

Don’t forget that smaller parties are less well resourced and may struggle to find all the political advisers they need. And whilst it is imperative to learn from the past it is also essential to understand that a new coalition might differ considerably from the one that governed the country from 2010-2015. The Lib Dems, after all, are still suffering from being roundly rejected at the polls in 2015 and will likely prefer a supply and confidence deal next time.

The challenges of implementation

So much for the policy end – what about turning those policies into practical delivery?

Here it is important that the voice of those responsible for delivery is heard loud and clear, and it will be helpful to establish teams for the implementation of each key policy or pledge. Many civil servants tend to think of this as a matter just for themselves. But it is highly likely that a new government of whatever colour will have to find ways to improve front line public services without massive public investment. That will mean collaborating on planning and delivery with the private and civil society sectors.

Civil servants often neglect to use the sort of language that will appeal to a new ruling party. I remember thinking the Lib Dems would embrace the idea of building a “Big Society”. But the concept was doomed because the words were “Conservative words”, not Lib Dem ones. So be creative: we scrapped the "delivery unit" introduced by the previous lot and replaced it with the “implementation unit” – although I struggled to see any real differences!


Incoming governments tend to have a clear 100-day plan. They want to be able to demonstrate change quickly in tangible ways. But many changes take a long time to develop and deliver. A new administration will naturally want to allocate public spending to its own priorities, not those of its predecessor, prompting an immediate spending review. Don’t rush into such an important set of decisions, though, without careful analysis. It may be wise to argue for extending existing spending plans for a year while preparing for more fundamental shifts in resources.

The ministerial code

New ministers have to understand their responsibilities and duties under the ministerial code. In this context be proactive and help them comply with the rules and guidance. For example, some will have to put investments into blind trusts, or dispose of them to avoid conflicts of interest. If they are reluctant, GCHQ will happily demonstrate just how easily others can intercept their so-called private messages. Let’s hope the evidence that emerged during the Covid Inquiry will make politicians (and civil servants) appreciate the perils of WhatsApp groups. Labour ministers will need to learn to record official business properly in ways that will be very different from the discussions and decisions they might have taken in opposition.

They will receive invitations to all sorts of wonderful events, and will be wise to decline most of them. The code requires ministers to ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests. If Labour wins, the prime minister’s chief of staff, Sue Gray (the ex head of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office) will likely take a very dim view of anyone breaking the rules.

And finally...

Finally, remember that changes of administration are quite rare in the UK’s  first-past-the-post voting system. So make the most of this unusual opportunity and think of innovative ways to deliver the new administration’s desired outcomes.

Many senior civil servants will have experience of transitions, so if this is your first time ask them for their advice. If, like me, you are one of those who has seen quite a few be ready to pass on what you learnt last time while realising that, as they say, the past may not be a good guide to the future. Good luck!

Gus O’Donnell was cabinet secretary and head of the civil service from 2005-2011.

This article first appeared in the Heywood Quarterly and is republished here with the Editor's permission and the permission of the author. 

Heywood Quarterly is a new publication which aims to celebrate innovation in the civil service and champion the ideals of Jeremy Heywood, the former cabinet secretary who died in 2018. The brainchild of Suzanne, Jeremy’s widow, it recently launched a mini series of articles on the election process and on the roles and responsibilities of public servants during an election campaign (of which this article by Gus O’Donnell is one).

Heywood Quarterly will publish its first full edition later in the summer. Join the Quarterly's mailing list to receive each edition and be notified when each new article is posted.

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