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Preparing for government: How the official opposition should ready itself for power

Rishi Sunak has called a general election for 4 July 2024.

10 Downing Street in London

For both the 1997 and 2010 elections, access talks began at least 16 months before the end of the parliament. This time Labour will have had around 5 months. While Labour has the advantage of three shadow ministers having previously run government departments – no shadow minister had done so in 1997 – the talks with the civil service and the other preparations it has been conducting are a crucial part of preparing for the possibility of government.  

This report set out key lessons for how any opposition party should use the time before an election to prepare for government. Drawing on interviews with former ministers, senior civil servants and former political and special advisers, the report shows that detailed preparation for government is critical in the UK – where, unlike almost any other country, opposition parties almost always transition into power overnight. Oppositions that prepare are better at governing, particularly in the crucial early years of a parliament.  

The report’s recommendations included: 

  • Keir Starmer and his team finalising a clear set of policy priorities – and brokering the necessary trade-offs between them – as well as the legislation needed in a first King’s Speech within weeks of taking power.  
  • Shadow teams working out what level of detail they will share with the civil service and when during talks – building agreement now for what will (and will not) be discussed will help focus minds.  
  • Labour working with the Cabinet Office to arrange cross-cutting talks, as Labour’s missions are not confined neatly within a single department’s brief.
  • Labour planning what machinery of government changes are necessary to support cross-government missions, with Starmer and chief of staff Sue Gray planning now for how they would restructure the centre of government.
  • Avoiding any more shadow cabinet reshuffles before the election and identifying a list of planned core special adviser appointments prior to concluding access talks discussions  

General election 2024

IfG experts set out what happens before and during a general election, how political parties and the civil service prepare for the election outcome and what it means for government.

Visit our general election hub
Prime minister Rishi Sunak issues a statement outside 10 Downing Street, London, after calling a general election for 4 July.

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