04 November 2019

With civil servants needing to prepare for every possible general election outcome, Emma Norris says that Brexit means the 2019 campaign will cause new levels of uncertainty.

A general election usually means a winding down of parliamentary and government business for politicians. After dissolution, every seat in the House of Commons becomes vacant. There are no longer any MPs. And although government ministers remain in post, in practice they only attend to necessary business or respond crises – such as when the volcanic ash cloud coincided with the 2010 election.

For civil servants, however, elections represent anything but a dialling down of activity – and this election in particular will put unusual strain on Whitehall.

Preparing for election uncertainty is no easy challenge for the civil service

Before purdah kicks in, civil servants will be rushing to finish submissions, have outstanding decisions finalised, and parliamentary wash-up completed – although wash-up is likely to be quick, given the session has only just started. This pre-purdah period is already proving difficult, with questions being raised about exactly how and when the civil service is able to cost opposition policies. Once the campaign starts, restrictions will be placed on government activity; resources must not be redirected into political activity, and major decisions must be held back until after polling day. And it is at this point that the difficulties for the civil service will really start to bite.

The first challenge is the sheer uncertainty of the result. The 2017 election showed that little can be predicted about elections in the current climate. The cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, will need to prepare for every outcome, including the role that the Cabinet Office, and Buckingham Palace, will play if the election returns a complicated hung parliament. He will also prepare a ‘day one’ document for both a returning and incoming prime minister, setting out the immediate decisions that need to be made.

There could be huge changes to the civil service's policy priorities

Detailed policy briefs will also have been worked up for the new prime minister. Some of these will be relevant for any incoming prime minister, such as foreign policy and security and intelligence briefings, while others will be tailored to different possible prime ministers and forms of government – particularly on big policy announcements.

Many of these will have to be developed in more detail than usual because of how quickly a new government will want – or need – to move. Detailed work on Brexit will begin again immediately after an election; Labour are known to want to move quickly on plans to renationalise key industries; and their proposed changes to immigration would require a fast U-turn in how the Home Office currently operates. Serious, developed policy options will be needed for almost every electoral outcome. The resource burden will be intense.  

This is exacerbated by the fierce battle of ideas likely to rage during the campaign on issues like nationalisation and regulation – and the scale of difference between the parties. Departments need to be made analytically and psychologically ready to perform a complete about-turn on work which civil servants may have dedicated months or maybe years of their working lives. The civil service might have already prepared for a Conservative budget in November, but a Labour budget – due within 10 weeks of an election – would be a very different beast.

At the same time, the civil service has to prepare for a government that might feel and work in a very different way – in everything from the relationship between chancellor and prime minister, to far-reaching changes to department structures, with Labour open about the party’s plans for major machinery of government changes.

Every possible Brexit outcome is still on the table for the civil service

The most difficult issue of all is the backdrop of Brexit, with no-deal preparations creating the biggest headache. While the election guidance rules would appear to rule out expenditure on and the communications involved in another ‘Get ready for Brexit’ campaign, preparations will nonetheless have to continue at a reduced pace as the legal default is now for the UK to leave the EU without a deal on 31 January. This means the cabinet secretary will have some very challenging decisions to make in the weeks ahead.  

These will go beyond the Brexit communications campaign, with decisions needed on how to spend Whitehall’s resources. Operation Yellowhammer saw civil servants moved around Whitehall to gear up for the October Brexit deadline and the potential of no deal. With that now ruled out, it becomes harder to justify large numbers of officials having moved away from policy areas like education.

And on top of this, the general election makes it unclear what kind of Brexit the civil service should be planning for, with ever possibility – a fast-tracked Brexit deal, a second referendum, or another stuck hung Parliament – still in play depending on the outcome of the vote.

How ready do civil servants need to be for the reintroduction of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill? Should efforts be made to ensure that officials experienced in EU negotiations are not moved on to other areas? Should Whitehall be thinking about another Brexit referendum? How much attention needs to be given in advance to another Scottish referendum?

Uncertainty is a part of any general election campaign, but this year it is reaching new levels. For the civil service, all bets are off.