So, access has been granted. One of the rituals of the run up to a British General Election can begin: the private, official talks between the Opposition and the Civil Service, which allow both sides to prepare for a possible change of Government.
When access should happen is down to the Prime Minister, and Rishi Sunak’s decision last week means he has already cut things fine for his opponents compared to some past Elections (2010 for example). But what happens in access talks, and do they actually matter?
To start with one thing that shouldn’t happen: don’t expect a running commentary in the press. Both civil servants and the Opposition are told to keep the discussions confidential, and past experience suggests this is one convention still observed. There are powerful incentives for secrecy: for Labour, it’s about message discipline running up to the Election; and for civil servants, it’s about building the confidence of your likely future employers.
It also helps to keep things secret when only a few people are involved. And this brings me to the first point about how access talks actually work: they’re tightly controlled and only a few people know what’s happening. For Labour they’ll be overseen by Sue Gray, and I think that will mean an even tighter and more disciplined process than usual.
Sue’s opposite number in Government is her former boss and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, who’s now back at work. The first job for Sue and Simon will be to agree to some ground rules. One rule, for example, may be that a member of Keir Starmer’s office has to be present at every meeting. Only when the rules are settled will the shadow Secretaries of State and departmental Permanent Secretaries start talking to each other.
I was involved in access talks running up to four Elections from 2010 to 2019. My experience was they were taken very seriously by both sides and they actually mattered. These were discussions right at the top – between the shadow Secretary of State, the Permanent Secretary and just a few others on each side. They were an opportunity for the politicians to ask lots of questions about the department and the real challenges it faced, and for both sides to discuss the practical implications of big new policies. Above all, of course, it meant the senior people could get to know each other. On the official side the people involved were all very senior, DGs or above plus one (senior) link person, and the Opposition team was similar.
So given the secrecy and small number of people involved, what should businesses and other organisations with an interest be doing about access talks? Nothing directly I suggest. But this is still a critical time to engage the top of the Civil Service in every area: the approach just needs to be broader and more subtle than a focus directly on the access talks. Instead, every organisation should be asking itself about the evidence, insight and relationships that it can bring to bear, to help the senior people in departments through this phase and achieve its own goals. And there are plenty of lessons from 1997 and 2010 about how things can either go well for businesses – or badly.