19 April 2017

Once a snap election is triggered, a series of formal and informal processes begin. Dr Catherine Haddon explains the effect the election will have on parliamentary and government business.

After the vote in favour of an early election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the Prime Minister formally informed the Queen (who she forewarned of this plan the day before the announcement on Easter Monday), and officially set the date of the election: 8 June.

A date has now also been set for the dissolution of the current Parliament and the start of a formal campaign period: midnight on 2 May.

The remaining time before the dissolution of Parliament and the campaign period that follows carries several formal and informal rules for how Parliament concludes its current business and how government can operate once electioneering is underway.

Election timeline infographic

Parliamentary wash-up

The surprise announcement gives MPs barely two weeks of ‘wash-up’. This is the period before an election when any final bills or parliamentary business can be processed. It involves discussions between government and opposition about what can be got through quickly, and what needs to be jettisoned.

One of the arguments for the Fixed-term Parliaments Act is that with a known date for the next election, governments and Parliament would be better able to plan their legislative timetable and that we would avoid hurried deals about what of the current legislation can be pushed through before dissolution.

Instead there are some big bills going through Parliament: about 15 government bills via the House Commons or House of Lords. Many of these will now have to be put on hold until a new government is formed.

The Government also planned a Queen’s Speech and a raft of new legislation for early May. These may form part of a new Conservative Party manifesto, but work on them in the civil service may have to be curtailed.

The wash-up and dissolution of Parliament will also have a big effect on select committees. Since the 2015 Parliament around 300 inquiries of various sizes have been undertaken, many of which are still in play. These ongoing inquiries will be curtailed. But select committees will also have to elect new chairs after this election. Some chairs may not be able to stand for re-election, having officially stood for two parliamentary terms. This could have a huge effect on ongoing Brexit and wider scrutiny.

Campaign period restrictions on government business

The sudden election will have caught Whitehall off-guard (along with everyone else). Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, may have been forewarned. But probably not by long. Permanent secretaries and others across the civil service would have been just as surprised.

During an election campaign, ministers continue to serve, but have to separate their role in restricted government business from their campaign roles. The civil service continues to support the Government throughout the campaign, but it does so under stricter rules – known by many under the old term ‘purdah’. During the campaign period, no new appointments, contracts or big areas of policy can be announced and civil servants cannot provide support to ministers working on the campaign.

Purdah for the civil service and wider government business, begins on 22 April – more than a week before the formal dissolution of Parliament and start of the campaign. The Cabinet Office has set out guidance on these restrictions.

Departments will now be considering what policy and announcements – appointments and contracts or other major business – will have to wait until after the election, if the Conservatives are returned. They will also be waiting to see what manifesto promises will change these policies and what new policies and legislation will be on their hands.

The restricted role of the civil service during a campaign may be particularly tricky when it comes to Brexit – though preparation for a future government will allow Whitehall to continue some Brexit work, as well as that which is considered essential business.

During the EU referendum, the restrictions on the use of government resources by David Cameron’s government to support the Remain position became a major political issue. Opposition parties could be watching closely about what government work is continued. While the early election does not eat into the time for formal EU negotiations, Whitehall has a huge amount of work to do to prepare for them.

Opposition access to the civil service

Departments are also asked to prepare for the different possible governments that could in theory be returned – irrespective of the polls.

The election also provides a chance for the main opposition parties to get access to senior civil servants to discuss possible new policies. This tradition was used extensively by the Conservatives in the run up to the 2010 election and by Labour before 2015. It is triggered by the Leader of the Opposition writing to the Prime Minister and asking for access, with the Prime Minister then formally authorising it.

Although Theresa May has called this election in the hope of increasing her majority, the civil service has to err on the side of caution and, if asked, allow such contacts with other parties: in 2010 the Liberal Democrats were offered civil service access but did not really take it up. The Scottish National Party – considered a possible coalition partner in 2015 – can also ask for this access.

However, in previous elections the date has been known for some time and the opposition parties were given plenty of time to hold such talks – up to a year. They do not have that luxury this time. The parties will have to rapidly hone their policies into a manifesto over the next two weeks and then begin campaigning. It is possible that no parties will choose to take up these talks.

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