Andrew Grice: Don't bank on Cameron ditching sofa government

Inside Politics

Share
Related Topics

Behind heavy, closed doors and away from prying eyes like mine, Whitehall prepares discreetly for a change of government. For some senior civil servants, "Yes, minister" has become "Yes, shadow minister".

The confidential pre-election talks between permanent secretaries and David Cameron's senior frontbenchers are supposed to be strictly limited in scope. Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, has told departmental heads to be in "listening mode" and not to give policy advice to the Opposition. But the lines are blurred and in some cases seem to have been crossed. Certainly, the talks are much more meaningful than before the 2001 and 2005 elections, when both sides were going through the motions.

I am told that some Sir Humphreys plan to move civil servants who have become rather close to their Labour masters to less frontline jobs, even though the Tories have no plans for a purge like Labour's unnecessary cull of the directors of communications in almost all departments in 1997.

The Tory footsie index varies across departments but some officials seem to relish the prospect of change. "I have had three meetings with 'my' permanent secretary and I've turned down two more," says one shadow cabinet member.

The Tories have learnt a lot from the talks. In some cases, they believe they have found "booby traps" left by Labour – for example, budgets designed to ensure services collapse completely if incoming ministers try to shave them, causing maximum political damage. Naughty.

It's not all sweetness and light. Most Tory frontbenchers have never been ministers and some have already experienced Sir Humphrey's attempt to "gold-plate" their policy ideas. A foretaste of battles to come, notably over spending cuts.

Of course, Sir Humphrey is wise enough to prepare for every eventuality. Some officials got their fingers burned by anticipating a Labour victory in 1992. It didn't happen.

With recent opinion polls pointing to a hung parliament, Whitehall has naturally dusted down what it would do if no party wins an overall majority. (Top line: keep the Queen out of politics at all costs.) In the meantime, Sir Humphrey loyally serves the elected government of the day, however tiresome for some. "There's a lot of frenetic activity from Labour – costing Tory policies, working up ideas for its manifesto," said one old Whitehall hand. "But we sense that not much of it would happen, even if Labour hung on." The reason: those inevitable cuts.

Labour ministers insist their civil servants have not given up on the Brown administration. But recent weeks have seen a remarkable series of events which look like the Whitehall establishment's obituary for New Labour – or at least its centralised, top-down, sofa government dominated by Downing Street, with less power for individual departments.

Three heavyweight reports, from the Institute for Government, the House of Lords Constitution Committee and the Better Government Initiative have all made similar criticisms of the way government is run. At the same time, former civil servants have queued up at the Iraq Inquiry, chaired by one of their own, Sir John Chilcot (a signatory of the Better Government report), to shine a light on the mistakes of their former ministerial bosses. "It's payback time," one Labour minister grumbled. "The mandarins are enjoying their revenge."

As the permanent secretaries prepare for another group of temporary masters, the talks between them are shrouded in secrecy. A little leg was shown last week by Francis Maude, the shadow Cabinet Office minister who heads the Tories' "implementation unit". He addressed the Opposition Studies Forum, a new research group which Mr Cameron has welcomed but, like Groucho Marx, has no intention of joining a club that would have someone like him as a member. The forum's three presidents are Neil Kinnock, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy. And what do they all have in common?

Explaining the secrecy, Mr Maude told the forum: "It is a neuralgic business, because all senior figures in opposition suffer, understandably, from a concern about being seen to take it for granted. There's always this concern – isn't it arrogant? Isn't it complacent to be planning for what you might do in government when you haven't even won the election? Aren't you taking a lot for granted? Of course, exactly the reverse is the case: the really arrogant thing is to assume you don't need to plan for it ... to assume that you can smoothly gravitate from being full-time campaigning opposition politicians ... literally overnight, into being effectively what are kind of executive-ish chairmen of huge, complex, unwieldy organisations, where you don't even have the ability that an incoming management in a company would have of changing the teams if you don't think they fit."

Mr Maude said the Tories aimed to be the best-prepared opposition ever – for government, that is. The Tories say they would treat civil servants with more respect than Labour but hold senior managers to account through departmental boards. They are serious about using the power of the internet to ensure more transparency, on which Labour has been slow off the mark.

Other things may remain the same. The Tories say they will abandon Labour's micro-management from Downing Street. But I have a feeling that Mr Cameron, in his desire to be a strong prime minister, may find himself implementing the New Labour playbook after the election, as well as before.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before