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By Ben Guerin
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Access talks: how Whitehall and Starmer's Labour will quietly prepare for government

Keir Starmer with chief of staff Sue Gray, Oct 2023 (Credit: Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Press Wire)

12 min read

A general election is on the way and Keir Starmer’s Labour Party must prepare for government. Sienna Rodgers explores a key mechanism: secretive talks between civil servants and the opposition party

Whitehall is getting ready for a change of government – and that means talking to the opposition party. This is not improperly political but an established convention now that an election must be held in the next 13 months. The preparations, fraught with risks on both sides, require deft handling from a skilful cabinet secretary. But with the incumbent absent, and Labour seemingly in no rush to start the formal process, the coming months will be a huge test for senior civil servants and politicians alike.

To trigger the so-called “access talks”, which have been standard since the late 1960s, the leader of the opposition must formally write a letter requesting them. The prime minister can then accept or refuse. Keir Starmer has not yet put in the letter, and it has been reported that this will happen soon after the new year – but, at the time of writing, the Labour leader’s office is not officially confirming a timetable, saying only that there have been no talks nor talk of talks.

Concerns have been raised about this late start. The convention since 1992 has been for the talks to start 16 months before the end of the Parliament, and there are now just 13 months. “Even if the election happens in January ‘25, they’re running late,” Emma Norris of the Institute for Government (IfG) warns. The election could be called much earlier than that.

Some critics suspect Starmer’s chief of staff Sue Gray has enjoyed being the main intermediary too much to see the formal request put in

Lord Butler, cabinet secretary from 1988 to 1998, was responsible for extending the talks, which used to be just six months long. Margaret Thatcher’s tendency to call general elections in the fourth year of a Parliament prevented proper access talks from being held. “When John Major became prime minister, I put this point to him, and he agreed with me that these access talks were helpful and necessary for good government,” Butler says. A new precedent was set.

But Labour is still not ready. Some critics suspect Starmer’s chief of staff Sue Gray has enjoyed being the main intermediary too much to see the formal request put in, at which time her power will be diluted. “That’s not true,” a source close to the leadership says. “It’s just not her style. She’s very collegiate.” Labour MP Meg Hillier adds: “That’s nonsense. She’s only been there three months anyway. The formal request has been trailed for such a long time. There is a point at which you can only go in when you’re ready.” There is “no panic” on the Labour side that they have not yet started, she says.

According to Labour sources, talks have not been requested because the party is keen to make sure all its costings are correct first. One former permanent secretary agrees: until “you’ve bashed the wrinkles out” of your policies, “there’s a real limit on what the civil service can do other than smile and nod”.

Continuity between shadow secretaries and actual post-election secretaries is also helpful to ensuring access talks are useful, and it was only in September that Starmer put in place his final team. These shadows are being prepared for the talks by Gray, a former senior civil servant whose experience everyone agrees will be hugely valuable to the process. Sources say the Labour leader’s deputy chief of staff Helene Reardon-Bond, another former senior civil servant, is also key.

Experience is lacking in other areas. “No pads have been spads,” one Labour aide points out. Starmer has former special advisers (spads) working in his own office, but there are none among the political advisers (pads) in shadow departmental teams. Many of those advising shadow secretaries are in their 20s or early 30s, and some have never seen a Labour government in their adult lives.

The extent to which talks are successful depends partly on the state of the opposition party. In 2019, a snap election meant talks were limited, and they weren’t helped by the tense atmosphere within Loto (the leader of the opposition’s office). Too many staff insisted on joining the meetings between Jeremy Corbyn and then cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill, one Labour insider told The House, because “nobody trusted anyone, so everyone had to be there”. The result was “a bit chaotic”.

One factor complicating the picture this time is the absence of a cabinet secretary, as incumbent Simon Case is on indefinite medical leave. The rumour in SW1 is that he will not be returning. Names circulating for possible replacements, if chosen by Sunak, include current permanent secretaries Antonia Romeo, Sarah Healey, Tamara Finkelstein and James Bowler.

If, on the other hand, Case does return to see through the transition before then leaving, there are concerns the political neutrality of the role would be put further at risk. “It would be a really unfortunate precedent, whatever the personalities, if we started getting to a place where cabinet secretaries move rapidly, or are dismissed or moved on rapidly, after an election,” says the IfG’s Alex Thomas.

The IfG has recommended that, whenever the vacancy arises, the prime minister should consult with the opposition leader on the appointment of the next cabinet secretary. Olly Robbins, the former Brexit negotiator who was once principal private secretary to Tony Blair, has been raised as a candidate who may be favoured by Starmer should he get a say.

The cabinet secretary usually impresses upon the prime minister the importance of allowing access talks to go ahead, before playing a pivotal role in them – both by speaking to the opposition leader themselves and by overseeing the talks, which take place between the central teams and between the departmental teams.

Although there should not be too much central interference in departmental talks, because they must develop their own relationships, co-ordination is key: it is problematic if the civil service gets mixed messages about the policy priorities of a potential Labour government. It is a risk because typically every shadow believes their area is the most important one.

If the shadow cabinet is less than cohesive, some members might choose to freelance. The House is reliably told that in 2015, with Ed Miliband as leader, then shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna held a handful of meetings before shocking the civil service with the revelation that they should not pay attention to what he had said so far in their conversations. “Because there were some of Ed’s people there,” he explained, “and I’m going to do different things when I’m in power that I don’t want them to know about.” (Umunna did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.)

The IfG’s Dr Catherine Haddon says cabinet secretaries are best-placed to deal with the most challenging elements of access talks, including poor relationships. “One of the trickiest things they have to manage is if those access talks go wrong,” she explains. “If a shadow feels they’re not getting on well with a permanent secretary, that they’re just not gelling as individuals, or they’re finding the way in which the permanent secretary is handling the contacts difficult, it’s the cabinet secretary that has to think how to resolve that.”

Haddon adds: “I know of some stories in the past where ill feeling has arisen just because the shadows felt that the permanent secretaries were being condescending. I suspect the permanent secretaries had no idea and were just using civil service speak to carefully navigate providing advice that didn’t contravene the rules they’re under.”

“Ed Balls used to say that he went in almost every week to see members of the Treasury before 1997. That might have been an exaggeration”

The idea that strained access talks could influence the movements of permanent secretaries or even shadows when they enter government surprises Lord Butler, who oversaw the 1997 transfer of power. “This wasn’t a blind date,” he quips.

Access talks originally addressed mainly potential machinery-of-government changes, but their scope has since broadened to include the opposition party forewarning the civil service of any major policy and their timescale, and relationship-building is seen as a central purpose nowadays too.

The day a prime minister enters No 10 is surely one the most nerve-wracking of their lives. It brings together two of the most stressful life events at once: a new job and moving house. For David Cameron, it also involved innovating a new mode of government in heading the Coalition, and he had a baby on the way.

Upon retirement, Lord O’Donnell – cabinet secretary from 2005 to 2011 – was given a photograph by Cameron showing the moment the new prime minister had just been clapped through the No 10 door and was met by the civil service chief. “He’s got his head in his hands. He’s like, ‘Oh my god’. There’s his wife, Sam, she’s pregnant.

“What people don’t realise is, it’s not just a policy change,” O’Donnell says. “What people forget is the personal side. For ministers it’s a huge change from their previous existence. Being a shadow is so very different to being the actual minister.”

At their most basic, access talks enable practical arrangements to be made. “I remember having a meeting with Blair a week before the ’97 election, where we ran through quite a lot of details,” Lord Butler recalls, “including where he would live, the arrangements for the family, transport for the family where  there would be a people carrier, whether the children could practice their piano and all that.”

In 1997, Butler was “quite impressed” by Labour’s extensive preparations on its Bank of England independence plan. “The election was a Thursday, they came in on the Friday, and they wanted to announce this transfer on the Monday, which happened to be a bank holiday. I said, ‘This is a bit hasty, because this is quite a big decision. The cabinet ought to have a chance to endorse it’,” he remembers.

“Tony Blair said, ‘Oh, they’ll agree’. I said, ‘Yes, but there’s a formality about these things.’ Rather grudgingly, he agreed that there should be a ring around to all the ministers, just to make sure they did agree so he could at least formally say this was a cabinet decision.”

At a department level, shadow teams are expected to first work out schedules outlining which issues they want to cover and when. (This ensures the right people are in the room, as not every shadow and permanent secretary need attend every meeting.) Regular gatherings ensue, usually at a rate of about one a month. “Ed Balls used to say that he went in almost every week to see members of the Treasury before 1997. That might have been an exaggeration,” says Dr Haddon of the IfG.

It’s not providing advice, but it’s saying, ‘Do you realise this is not as simple as you think it is?’ This is grey area stuff

Policy can be discussed in a fair amount of detail in the departmental talks. Civil servants will want to know what legislation Starmer’s Labour plans to bring forward, especially early in their term, and what would make it into the first King’s Speech. “A manifesto covers the entire waterfront. For an individual department, that might be no more than a page or so of clues to what they might want to do,” one former permanent secretary points out.

Another former permanent secretary tells The House: “All the briefing work that you do, all the thought-about options, is going to be useful for any incoming government. I saw it as a 12-month period of strategically reviewing all our policies. What could we achieve, what resources do we have, how are we prioritising, how is the world changing? It’s a workout for the whole department.”

The civil servants are not supposed to provide any confidential information, such as what the government is planning on certain areas, nor should they advise the opposition. They should provide basic information such as the size of the department, the budget, and the current externally driven issues. They can also make use of their eyebrows for any suggestions deemed impractical.

“It’s not providing advice, but it’s saying, ‘Do you realise this is not as simple as you think it is?’ This is grey area stuff. Permanent secretaries are very aware they can’t compromise their relationships with their existing secretary of state,” former IfG director Peter Riddell says.

Starmer already has experience of access talks, having done them as shadow Brexit secretary in 2019. At the time Labour was promising to renegotiate Brexit, then hold a fresh referendum, all within six months of the election. This was a highly ambitious timetable and considered by many to be unrealistic.

One civil servant involved in the talks between Starmer and the Department for Exiting the European Union, DExEU, remembers the now leader kicking them off in a notably courteous and professional manner. “In the course of this election campaign, you will hear me saying some very oppositional things about Brexit. Please be assured that none of that is intended to be attacking the civil servants who are working in DExEU implementing policy,” they recall him saying.

The tone stood in stark contrast to some of the frosty talks civil servants had experienced with Labour in 2015, and to the tense relationships they had with ministers during the Brexit wars. Starmer’s approach communicated that his Brexit team respected the advice and expertise of the civil servants, which led to unusually fruitful talks. 

With Labour’s plan for a second referendum bill thought to be technically and politically complicated, sources say the access talks drifted into more detail than considered proper. “You’d really have to do this,” they would tell Starmer’s team, “you might think that that would work, but it honestly wouldn’t,” and “get your thinking away from that line”. This went beyond the conventional “listening mode”.

Access talks ahead of the next general election may be running late, but it seems fair to say that of all people, Starmer – armed with experienced staff and direct involvement in past talks himself – should know how to make the best of them. Now he just needs to hope his front benchers don’t go dramatically off-script, pray his policy ambitions don’t raise any eyebrows, and finally put in his request. 

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