UK opposition to meet with civil servants ahead of general election

By on 15/01/2024 | Updated on 16/01/2024
Close up photo of UK prime minister Rishi Sunak giving speech in front on Union Jack flag.
Photo by Pippa Fowles / No 10 Downing Street via Flickr

Senior politicians in the UK’s opposition Labour party will start talks with civil servants on how they would run government should they win the election later this year, having been granted permission by prime minister Rishi Sunak.

Access talks, as they are known, are a routine feature of British democracy. The meetings allow shadow ministers and their teams to establish relationships and discuss their agenda with top civil servants, helping to ensure a smooth transition into government in the event of a change in administration.  

A Cabinet Office spokesperson confirmed that “in line with the longstanding process set out in the cabinet manual, the prime minister has authorised access talks between the official opposition and civil service,” and added that cabinet secretary Simon Case would “oversee and arrange these discussions”.

The cabinet manual, which sets out the procedures for government, dictates that the meetings take place “on a confidential basis, without ministers being present or receiving a report of discussions”.

“These discussions are designed to allow the opposition’s shadow ministers to ask questions about departmental organisation and to inform civil servants of any organisational changes likely to take place in the event of a change of government.

“Senior civil servants may ask questions about the implications of opposition parties’ policy statements, although they would not normally comment on or give advice about policies.”

General election slated for November

Access talks must to be authorised by the prime minister, who always does by convention, but when they do so is at their discretion. Over the last 30 years, meetings have been allowed from anything between 51 days before an election – as was the case in 2017 during Theresa May’s tenure – to 16 months prior to the vote, according to research by London-based think tank the Institute for Government (IfG).

Read more: UK’s opposition leader vows to tackle civil service churn

The date of the next general election – which must take place before 28 January 2025 – hasn’t yet been set but Sunak said earlier this month that his “working assumption” is that it will take place in the second half of this year. The former chancellor George Osborne, who is close to many of those around the PM, said publicly last week that he understands it is slated for 14 November, which would give Labour 10 months to meet with senior civil servants.

The frequency of access talks varies but it is understood that some shadow ministers and their advisers have in the past met the relevant civil servant and their senior teams once or twice a week for two to three hours at a time in the run-up to an election.

Sunak buys time ahead of defeat prediction

General elections, which in the UK must take place every five years or sooner, had since the late 1970s always taken place in spring but this trend was bucked in 2019 when voters went to the polls in December.

It is thought Sunak has opted for a late election in a bid to improve the Conservative Party’s prospects of holding power for the fifth consecutive time since it took office in coalition with the Liberal Democrats in 2010.

The government has been rocked by the ‘partygate’ scandal in which ministers and political staff were found to have attended parties at 10 Downing Street and other government buildings during COVID-19 lockdowns, revelations to have come out of the ongoing COVID inquiry, right-wing voters’ dismay that it has failed to curb immigration, and other issues.  

The latest poll by YouGov suggests that the Tories face a landslide defeat not seen since 1997 when Tony Blair became PM.

Read more: AI key to ‘transform productivity’ of the civil service, says UK’s deputy PM

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About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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