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

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

Recruitment Genius: Domestic Appliance Service Engineer

£21000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This centre seeks an experience...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

Recruitment Genius: Conveyancing Fee Earner / Technical Support

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An experienced Fee Earner/Techn...

Recruitment Genius: Data Administrator

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of this mu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Independent journalist James Moore pictured outside Mile End underground station in east London  

From ‘coloured’ to ‘cripple’ - some words just don't belong in everyday language

James Moore
Marina Litvinenko, the widow of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, leaves the High Court after the opening of the inquiry into his death  

Laying the blame for Litvinenko’s death at Putin’s door is an orthodoxy that needs challenging

Mary Dejevsky
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness