Keir Starmer's shadow teams could have just a month to talk to civil servants if PM calls May election

28 February 2024, 14:03

Scottish Labour Hold Spring Conference
Scottish Labour Hold Spring Conference. Picture: Getty
Natasha Clark

By Natasha Clark

Connor Hand

By Connor Hand

Some of Sir Keir Starmer's top team could have just one month to talk to civil servants before a possible May election.

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LBC has learned that access talks between some top shadow teams still haven't yet started.

Rishi Sunak gave the Labour party permission to begin high level meetings with top Whitehall figures in January, and then formally began in February.

Whilst it is understood that talks with Sir Keir Starmer and his team are underway, some shadow ministers with key briefs - including in home affairs and education - will only begin their conversations with permanent secretaries in April.

This means they could only have a month of talks should the prime minister decide to defy expectations and call for a contest in May.

One shadow minister told LBC: "We're not expecting to meet with permanent secretaries after Easter. There are worries about how much time we will have - especially as we're still planning for a May election."

Another admitted: "Talks with Keir's team have to come first - but as soon as we get the call we are ready to go."

Insiders insisted that talks were were in full swing, and it was a case of coordinating time and diaries.

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But convention has previously dictated much more time for talks to take place - around 16 months before the end of the Parliament according to the Institute for Government.

Emma Norris warned: "Even if the election happens in January ‘25, they’re running late."

Former top civil servant Sir David Bell told LBC that he held eight months of talks with shadow teams including Michael Gove back in 2010.

Discussions over several months with the then-shadow education secretary were an important forum to “sharpen up” his policies, he said.

Sir David said: "We had about eight months of talks between Michael Gove and myself as the permanent secretary.

"That was very useful because as the talks went on, Michael Gove was able to sharpen up some of his policy proposals, and that gave me the chance to think more about what we would do by way of preparation.

"[The access talks] gave me increasing detail about what Mr Gove wanted to suggest. For example, he was very keen to accelerate the academies programme in schools and said to me it was ‘a very early priority.’

"We were able to think very carefully about that during the pre-election period, so when Mr Gove walked through the door, we were able to put in front of him some quite detailed plans."

The revelation has raised concerns about the coordination between the civil service and a potential incoming Labour administration, and whether this could result in slower progress for the party’s objectives in government.

Lucy Powell, the shadow leader of the House, is already doing work behind the scenes to get Labour's potential laws ready to go in the event they win the election.

Ms Powell is drawing up which the priorities for the first 100 days of an incoming government would be, and what will get done first.

Angela Rayner's workers' rights package is expected to be one of the first on the agenda.

The PM has said he expects to call a vote in the second half of the year - thought to be October or November.

That would mean shadow teams would be able to get several months of discussions in, and prepare them better for government.