Leading article: The politics of pet projects

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The Independent Online

The Conservatives' accusation that Labour is engaging in a "scorched earth" policy by locking government into contracts that will be expensive and difficult to break after the next election is a little too dramatic. The flurry of pre-election Government activity that we report today seems more likely to be designed to protect various pet projects, rather than to waste public money (not least because Labour ministers have not entirely given up on the hope of remaining in office after the election).

But, whatever the moral complexion of the motives, this is still unsatisfactory. With an election looming, although not yet officially called, ministers ought to be pushing through no long-term commercial contracts, and certainly none that an incoming administration would seek to unwind. Labour ministers appear to be exploiting a loophole in our constitution and the Conservatives are justified in being aggrieved.

The rules on "purdah" – which prevent civil servants enacting policies which might conflict with the agenda of a potentially incoming administration – are supposed to prevent such behaviour. But these rules only come into force from the moment an election is called by the Prime Minister, usually around four to six weeks before the poll. Until that moment, ministers have a right to sign whatever commercial contracts they please.

The present scramble suggests that this period of purdah ought to be extended, to perhaps three months. Of course, this would effectively create a three-month election campaign. But is that so different from what we have at the moment? The main parties have effectively been in campaign mode since the beginning of the year. There is little that ministers do or say already that is not influenced by the forthcoming poll. The ability of prime ministers to call a snap election would be impeded if such a reform were introduced. But the public benefit of this power has always been unclear.

"Three month purdah and fixed-term parliaments" might not be the sort of slogan that wins general elections – but such reforms would probably improve British governance more than any number of eye-catching new laws.