How political parties prepare for government

Why do political parties prepare for government?

Alongside campaigning for office, political parties also undertake other preparation for what they will do if they win an election and get into power. 

In the UK any change of government can happen rapidly once a general election result is known. When there is a new majority government the handover of power is often the morning after the result, and new governments want to get going immediately. The prime minister will spend the first weekend forming a government, ministers will head off to their departments as soon as they have been appointed and new governments often begin announcing policy changes from day one.  

This means that much of the preparation that opposition parties might undertake for government – considering any changes they want to make to departments or understanding what it is like to be a minister – has to occur before they take office. Other countries have transition periods to allow a new government to consider some of these issues.

How do political parties prepare for government?

Alongside campaigning for office, political parties tend to undertake three kinds of preparation for government:

1. Making manifesto policies deliverable by one or more government departments

Some parties will develop draft legislation and attempt to work up some policies to be ready for implementation. Once in government, most policies still need quite extensive work by the civil service in order to be implemented. However, some decisions, like granting Bank of England independence in 1997 or the creation of the Office for Budget Responsibility in 2010, can be made ready for an immediate announcement. Parties also need a clear enough idea of their legislative plans which can be announced in a Queen’s Speech – which is usually two to three weeks after a general election.

2. Thinking how to organise or reorganise the structure of government

Changes to government departments or the creation of new departments need to be thought through – they can be costly and detract from the civil service’s ability to get on with delivering policy. When new governments do want to make these changes immediately, they will need to be settled by the time the prime minister is announcing ministerial roles. Theresa May created three new departments when she became prime minister in 2016 (Department for Exiting the EU; Department for International Trade; and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) and appointed a secretary of state to each one immediately; however, the departments were not fully up and running for some time afterwards.

Behind the scenes, new prime ministers also need to consider how they want No.10 and the centre of government to work for them. They will have advice from the cabinet secretary and other senior officials on what does or does not work, but they will need to have done some prior thinking about how their own working practices can fit with the machinery at the centre.

3. Improving their understanding of how government operates and supporting their shadow ministers or spokespeople in learning how to be government ministers

Ministers who have no prior experience of government can find themselves on a steep learning curve. Caroline Spelman, the first secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs during the 2010–15 coalition government, told the Institute that “we as ministers, particularly me with no ministerial experience, didn’t actually know what was required of us. So one of the things the principal private secretary had to do in the early days and weeks was actually explain what we had to do”.

Oppositions usually try and encourage potential ministers to attend sessions that can help them understand government and a ministerial role will entail. Before 1992 and 1997, the Labour leadership attempted to help their shadow teams prepare for being in office, but with limited success. As Patricia Hewitt recalled: "What was depressing was most of the shadow cabinet really didn’t feel they needed any training or development. (…) I remember a couple of our shadow cabinet people saying, 'What’s this got to do with us?'"

The Institute for Government has worked with opposition parties in the run-up to general elections since 2009, focusing on understanding government, how to work with the civil service, and how to prioritise and think about implementation of policies.

Which parties undertake preparation for government?

Preparation for government is left entirely to the discretion of the parties, with each deciding how much preparation it should do based on how realistic its chance of coming into power. Parties may tend to undertake preparations, even if an election victory looks highly unlikely, as this gives off the impression that they are a credible alternative government.

How thoroughly should a party prepare for government?

This can depend on how long it has been since a party has been in office. In 1997, Labour had been out of office for 18 years. The party prepared quite extensively for government, making sure its policies were ready and conducting some training for some potential ministers.

In 2010 the Conservatives had not been in government for 13 years and only two Liberal Democrat shadow spokespeople had any experience of central or devolved government. The Conservatives employed a team to work specifically on preparation for government – developing ‘business plans’ for each department and planning the party's legislative agenda. The Liberal Democrats, not wanting to seem presumptive, did not do as much preparation for government – but did prepare for possible coalition negotiations and put themselves in a strong position when talks were held.

Preparation can only be so helpful, however. Dominic Grieve, attorney general 2010–14, explained how the preparation he did in advance of his appointment as a minister was rendered redundant by a change in post: "It wasn’t a job that I had actually prepared for, because in the immediate run up to the general election I was shadow justice secretary and I had put a great deal of work and effort into preparing for that post."

Institute for Government research emphasises that new governments should view the first few weeks and months in government as part of the transition.

Who do parties speak to when preparing?

In preparing for government, political parties have sought the help of senior civil servants, retired former civil servants, think tanks and consultancy firms.

Access talks with the civil service are offered by convention to the main opposition party at least six months before a change in government. These allow an opposition party and the civil service to prepare to work with each other, with the talks giving officials time to plan ahead and prepare for the policy priorities of a new government. They also allow both sides to establish a working relationship with each other.

Ahead of the 1997 general election Ed Balls, in his capacity as adviser to then Shadow Chancellor Gordon Brown, met Terry Burns, then permanent secretary at the Treasury, “maybe once or twice a week, for two or three hours at a time. As that went on, more and more people came into the discussions”.

Update date: 
Monday, October 28, 2019
Authors: Catherine Haddon