I have been fortunate indeed to receive a second leaked letter from the heart of government. Dr Spendlove is writing to his boss, Dame Lucy, about civil service preparations for the next government…
I am concerned that the Lord Chancellor and the Welfare Secretary are putting too much pressure on us to proceed in ways that could be illegal under European Union laws and our Treaty obligations. I can assure you I am making clear to Ministers, and through the Attorney General’s advice, that we must not knowingly trigger infraction proceedings against the UK by being insouciant towards the European requirements on fair access to benefits. Nor must we drift away from our strong commitment to human rights, as manifest by the UK’s signature on the European Convention and the subsequent buttressing of this position through EU law as well. The protections we put in with colleagues in other European countries in the Amsterdam and Lisbon Treaties should work well. The UK would both look bad and would ultimately lose if Ministers persist in challenging the settled position on these matters.
Thinking of these important issues has led me to suggest that we should soon start contingency planning for the next government to be elected in 2015. Whilst in current conditions we must plan for a variety of outcomes, we know the measure of the Conservative and Liberal Democrats through their Ministerial positions in coalition. We will continue to brief Conservative Ministers of the crucial importance of keeping to EU law in the context of what they are wishing to do already, and suggest to them they should not have high expectations of what is achievable in the renegotiation they wish to undertake.
The current opinion polls point in the direction of a Labour government with a substantial majority, with the anti Labour vote split three ways between the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and UKIP. Of course this could change and we must not take a view that is anyway partisan. However, I think we can conclude from what we see so far that a government which wishes to seriously disrupt our European relati0nships is not very likely. It does look as if Eurosceptic voters have decided to split their forces in a way which may make them irrelevant to the conduct of proper government. Things will be more difficult if there is a majority government that holds a referendum on membership of the EU.
I appreciate it is quite early to seek permission to talk to the leading Opposition party about their programme and transition to government in the event of their winning. However, with European elections coming up and the temptation for vote hungry parties to say things that are simply unrealistic in the European context, I wonder if we should not put out feelers now? If the official Opposition party, ahead in the polls, remains committed to the UK’s current relationship with the EU and is not pledged to a referendum, it will make matters much easier from the point of view of the continuity of orderly government. I think they should know the realistic assessment of the strength of the UK negotiating position that we have drawn up to guide Ministers who are too eager to suppose we can suddenly reduce EU competences.
Conservative Ministers of course believe they can win a majority thanks to economic recovery, their offer of a referendum and other government successes. We will continue to serve them faithfully , by reminding them of the realities of office in a full member of the EU at a time of growing need for international solutions to the big problems like climate change and the mobility of labour. The Liberal Democrat Ministers we serve usually accept the EU legal advice seriously and willingly.