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Keeping Miliband out in the cold will haunt Tories

The rules allowing the Opposition access to the civil service to plan a power transition have been changed so as to offer only 6 months contact instead of a year

It takes the form of quiet lunches away from prying eyes, informal chats on the phone and a rekindling of old acquaintances. None of it is official. None of it sanctioned. But all of it  is useful.

For several months now, I am told, quiet discussions have been taking place between past and present civil servants and senior figures in the Labour Party about what a future Ed Miliband Government might want to do in office.

Leading the Labour side is the former Cabinet minister Lord Falconer, who has been tasked by Mr Miliband with drawing up the party’s plans for transition to power should it win next year. Also involved is another former minister, Lord Adonis, who has previously headed the civil service think tank, the Institute for Government.

Even earlier today, Labour sources said, the whole Shadow Cabinet was given a briefing by the Institute on the changes that have taken place in Whitehall since the party was last in power. More are expected in coming months – with likely unofficial civil service input.

Sources on both sides say at this stage the discussions are exploratory and no meetings have taken place between shadow ministers and their possible future permanent secretaries. But such informal channels of communication are about to become more important.

Last week David Cameron took the decision to restrict the officially sanctioned discussions between the opposition and the civil service that take place in the run-up to a general election until after the end of the party conferences in October.

Under a convention dating back to John Major’s government, the Opposition is given official access to the civil service up to 16 months before polling day. This allows it to “road test” its plans for government with senior officials and ensure a smooth transfer of power.

Until last weekend Labour had thought it would have a year of official access to the civil service machine. But on Saturday Mr Miliband received a letter from the Prime Minister informing him that as a result of new fixed-term parliaments, he had decided this was no longer necessary. It will mean Labour gets less than six months of official talks – and considerably less before it has to finish its manifesto.

Not surprisingly, it senses political skulduggery. But it is not as simple as that.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, is understood to have had some sympathy with Labour wanting a longer engagement time. But Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, was believed to have privately supported Mr Cameron’s timetable. He is understood not to want civil servants to get overly distracted from delivering the programme of the current administration.

There are several good arguments why he may be wrong about this. The first is a simple question of fairness. Then there is the question of a smooth and effective transition of power should Labour win in 2015.

Ministers are working on proposals to contract out the work of the probation service to the private sector. This is vehemently opposed by Labour. Surely it is the role of the civil service to discuss this with both sides now and possibly delay the tendering process until we know who will form the next government? To do otherwise is basically undemocratic, or costly to get out of.

Privately, I am told that Labour doesn’t intend to kick up a fuss, but it is still a bad precedent to set and will certainly come back to haunt the Conservatives.