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

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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.

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