Bob Kerslake: “The Labour leadership, the shadow cabinet - they genuinely want to learn.”
Bob Kerslake has been tasked by Labour with helping the party prepare for entering government. Just how far along in the process is the former head of the Home Civil Service? Gary Connor reports
Can I ring you back?” Bob Kerslake asks, answering a phone call from his wife halfway through our chat. “She says I should only do the interview if you put me on the front page”, he tells me, laughing. I joke that I’ll put in a good word with the magazine’s editor next time I see him.
I’m sitting down with the former head of the Home Civil Service at the end of a tumultuous week in British politics. Just a few days before, Theresa May had sought the backing of the Cabinet for her Brexit plan. Two of them indicated exactly what they thought of it by handing the prime minister their resignation.
Kerslake has been tasked by Labour with helping the party prepare for entering government. With the meaningful vote looming in the House of Commons, and nobody sure what could happen if MPs refuse to back the prime minister, it’s a job that has taken on a greater sense of urgency.
We meet late on a Friday afternoon. Kerslake jokes that we’re probably the only two people left in the palace, where he’s been working since 7.30am that morning. It’s almost deserted as he leads me through the unglamorous shortcut to the not at all posh House of Lords bar. As we walk, news starts to filter through social media that Amber Rudd is back in the Cabinet.
We sit down in a corner of the empty bar and have a drink; both diet cokes, because he’s due to make an appearance on Sky News a few hours later – “talking about Brexit, what else?”
Kerslake has been a member of the House of Lords since 2015, and as is customary for former civil servants, sits as an independent crossbencher. The fact that he’s working closely with the Labour party has raised some eyebrows, not least in elements of the tabloid press.
“Let’s say it hasn’t made me the best friends with the Daily Mail,” he quips, adding that it hasn’t made him very popular with Conservatives either.
His involvement with Labour goes back to 2015, when shortly after Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader, John McDonnell announced that Kerslake would carry out a review of whether the Treasury was “fit for purpose”. The two had worked together at the GLC in the 1980s when McDonnell was a “very good committee chair of finance”.
Kerslake agreed that a review was a sensible thing to do, and produced a report for the shadow chancellor in 2017, concluding that the Treasury was “arrogant, overbearing and negative towards other departments”, and called for a shift in its relations with the rest of Whitehall.
That led to further bodies of work, including a 2016 review into how well Jeremy Corbyn’s office was functioning. “Often with these things, you start somewhere, and you go somewhere else,” he explains.
His focus now is on helping the party be match fit, should it get into power. He emphasises that he isn’t a Labour member, doesn’t take the party whip and remains a crossbench peer. “I may or may not support their policies,” he says. “But I don’t see it as my role to promote them.”
Kerslake explains to me his long-held view that arrangements for supporting opposition parties are “inadequate” and what members of the Civil Service can reveal is very limited. He adds that their assistance is often in the gift of the sitting prime minister. “Surprise, surprise, they’re not usually that enthusiastic about helping the opposition,” he says, stressing that this has been true of Labour, as well as Conservative PMs.
This lack of support, he says, has resulted in mistakes being made once parties have entered power, giving Universal Credit and former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s NHS reforms as two examples.
“I feel, genuinely, in terms of the way the democratic system works, we should have more ways of advising and supporting the opposition,” he explains.
“I know that senior Civil Servants have helped certain parties under the radar. But I felt that it wasn’t going to be good enough. I needed to be honest and say that I’m doing this.”
Kerslake explains that the work he’s currently doing falls into four areas. The first he describes as “basic induction” – how to do things in government, how to get the best out of the civil service, what a private office is – “the important foundation things”. He’s put together a presentation for the shadow cabinet that will be cascaded down to other teams. “They may not want to run things the way they are now,” he says. “But you don’t know what you want to change unless you know how it runs.”
The second area of work has focussed specifically on the shadow Treasury team on the issues they might want to address and consider, such as how to produce an early budget or carry out a spending review.
Thirdly, Kerslake is working with Jon Trickett, who was appointed by Jeremy Corbyn last October to lead shadow cabinet preparations for government, on departmental implementation plans and how to approach writing a Queen’s Speech. Trickett is the “overseer”, he explains. “My bit is about bringing what knowledge and experience I have to the work.”
The fourth he defines as machinery of government changes. “I think it’s public knowledge that they’re looking at a dedicated Department of Housing. Maybe creating a Department of Labour. It’s been talked about,” says Kerslake.
So how far along are preparations? “I think we’ve done a lot actually,” he says. “What I would say has been really impressive is their willingness to engage in this. The leadership, the shadow cabinet, they genuinely want to learn.”
He adds: “They’re open to it. They want it to work.”
Although the current political climate in unstable, there is no certainty about when a general election could come. A change in prime minister does not need a general election. So, Labour could be waiting until 2022 for a chance to run the country. By then the party would have been out of power for 12 years, meaning a great deal of the collective knowledge built up over the New Labour years will have been lost.
Labour is also preparing for the scenario where they take power without a working majority, acting as a minority government. What policies they choose to pursue or postpone in those circumstances is something Kerslake is clear will be a political judgement for the leadership at the time. What he is assisting with is practical advice, such as whether policies could be delivered through executive action alone or secondary legislation, or whether primary legislation is necessary.
He also won’t be drawn further on John McDonnell’s comments to The House in September that Labour has been formulating a first “transformative” Queen’s Speech, other than to say that the leadership is “very alert to the fact that they need to have clarity about policies”.
Kerslake says the party also faces a number of other challenges, including the political and economic context when it takes power and their promised radical agenda: “It represents quite a departure from what might have been seen as the political consensus for a number of years,” he explains.
“Whilst I think the Civil Service would pride themselves on their commitment to delivering any government’s policies, I genuinely think it will take some adjusting.
“So the more you can prepare, the better really.”
There’s been a notable increase in preparations since Kerslake’s involvement began, according to an aide of one shadow cabinet member who I spoke to. Each member of the shadow cabinet has been tasked with looking at the structure of their future department and setting out their five main priorities once in government.
However, the aide admits that the pressures of the day-to-day job means that only the “bare minimum” work can be done. “It’s not a priority for most shadow cabinet staff,” they say. “Are we ready for government? Some people are.”
They also point out that there’s little experience of government among Labour’s political advisers in the Commons, compared with a number of “old hands” working within Labour’s set up in the Lords.
Labour peers who served under the last government believe the party’s leadership is missing in trick in failing to seek the advice of peers with ministerial experience under their belts. “We would want them to talk with us more about what worked, what didn’t work and why we did some things,” Baroness Armstrong, a long-serving former chief whip, says. She thinks the leader’s office doesn’t because “we are seen as an ideology they don’t support”.
“There are people in the Lords that know about government. It’s ok if they don’t want to talk to me, but there are others that they ought to be talking to, and others that the shadow cabinet ought to be talking to,” she adds.
If an election were to materialise soon, is Kerslake confident that the current Labour party is more prepared than when he became involved?
“I wouldn’t put it all down to me. I wouldn’t be that arrogant really,” he insists. “I hope I’ve helped. I think they would be quite a long way down the track of being where they want to be. Of course, the more time you get, the better.”
As we’re finishing our drinks in the Lords bar, and batting away fruit flies in the process, the BBC News alert goes on my phone, with the news that the relatively unknown Stephen Barclay has been appointed as the third Brexit Secretary in less than two years. It’s a reminder of how volatile things have been of late.
In light of recent events, preparations must have stepped up a gear? Kerslake agrees. “It’s very hard in opposition to find the space to do preparations, because that work is always competing with opposing what’s going on now, the next parliamentary statement,” he says.
“I think the fact that an election could be coming closer will concentrate minds, definitely.”