Nigel Fletcher is Director of the Opposition Studies Forum, a new research group looking at political opposition.
The heated exchanges between George Osborne and Lord Mandelson over access to Government spending figures has thrown light on the usually private system of pre-election contacts between the Opposition and the Civil Service.
Since January, David Cameron and his Shadow Cabinet have been having formal meetings with senior Whitehall officials to prepare for a potential Conservative administration. ConservativeHome and others have reported on this process, and noted the seriousness with which it is being treated by the Party, with Francis Maude’s ‘implementation unit’ working out detailed plans for government. This week’s controversy focuses attention on how the process works.
It is widely accepted that the basis of the convention on official contacts is the arrangements of 1964, when Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home authorised civil servants to hold discussions with Harold Wilson prior to the election that year. Wilson disclosed the arrangement publicly in a statement to the House of Commons as Prime Minister in 1970, and confirmed he had instructed the Head of the Civil Service ‘that the practice of our predecessors in these matters should be followed’.
On that basis, constitutional geeks like me know the convention as ‘the Douglas-Home rules’, and note that they have since become formalised and refined over the decades, notably when John Major agreed to extend the timeframe under which they can take place to 18 months before the expiry of a Parliament, to take account of elections taking place before a full term. The current convention is now described in the Directory of Civil Service guidance as:
"Towards the end of a Parliament, or when a General Election has been called…the Prime Minister authorises special arrangements under which Opposition spokesmen may have contacts with senior civil servants without Ministers having a right to be privy to the content of their discussions… In the course of these contacts, the Opposition parties, in preparing for major changes in the machinery of government, may also wish to let senior departmental officials have some idea of their plans, so as to enable the changes to be made as smoothly as possible if the Election results in a change of Government. In the nature of things the number of people concerned, either in the Opposition parties or in the Civil Service, will be very limited."
The meetings are certainly useful for both sides, but the system is by no means perfect. Michael Howard’s Shadow Cabinet began meeting civil servants in January 2005 – three months after the Party had published its detailed “Timetable for Action” at the party conference. At least one Permanent Secretary raised an eyebrow at the list of “First month” commitments presented to him by a Shadow Minister, and expressed doubts about whether it would be possible to achieve.
David Cameron and George Osborne are clearly determined that their plans will not be met by such a response, and this partly explains George Osborne’s frustration at not being able to get his hands on the Government’s spending database. To prepare adequately for public spending reductions in a recession is a much taller order than the task facing many previous oppositions, and doing so on the basis of partial information makes the task many times more difficult.
There is clearly also a powerful political dimension to the dispute – George Osborne wants to reiterate the message that Conservatives are being honest about cuts, whilst Labour is denying them and withholding information. It is a risky move, however, as Peter Mandelson’s furious response showed. The operation of the system of pre-election contacts is run by the Cabinet Secretary, and the convention is clear: The Prime Minister’s role is limited to authorising them to begin, and nothing more. Once this go-ahead has been given, ministers are not consulted, and play no part in the meetings. Criticising the Prime Minister for blocking the information appears, on the face of it, to be misplaced.
I say ‘on the face of it’, because there is in fact a wider issue at stake, which Gordon Brown could tackle if he chose to. The contacts under the Douglas-Home rules are supposed to relate principally to proposed machinery of government changes and organisational issues relating the Opposition’s plans. They are not intended to assist the Opposition in formulating their programme, and civil servants must not discuss details of the current Government’s policy or intentions. Access to the government spending database is clearly not covered, so Sir Gus O’Donnell was within his rights to turn down the request.
But does this episode not highlight a deficiency in the system? Would it not make for better government if the Opposition had access to much more information in drawing up their policies? At present, briefings for shadow ministers on confidential government matters outside the narrow pre-election system takes place on ‘Privy Council terms’ – at the discretion of ministers, and mainly on matters of national security. This does not suit the purposes of planning for power.
David Cameron has already committed himself to opening up the Government’s spending database to online scrutiny should he win power, and has noted that this will be a major weapon for future oppositions. But he could go further still. The process by which an opposition prepares itself to enter government is vitally important, and it needs to be done better. A party in power may be understandably reluctant to help those who seek to replace them, but it is the right thing to do. If Gordon Brown doesn’t seize the initiative, David Cameron must.