In a rare moment of frankness, Permanent Secretary Dame Lucy was heard setting out some of her innermost thoughts about the current political situation to a colleague as we run up to the election. As a senior civil servant she is pondering how to prepare for the next government after May and did not know that one of my sources was recording her every word. Here is the gist of what she said:
“As you know, the civil service must prepare for every eventuality after an election. We normally prepare a detailed brief setting out the issues and requirements of the most likely next government, and a lesser brief on the manifesto of the main rival. We do not normally pay more than passing reference to the views of the other parties in a General Election.
This time may be different. If the current polls are to be believed and if they do not change much over the next few weeks, the electorate may decide to decline any party a majority, and indeed may decline any likely combination of two parties a majority. In such circumstances it is beholden on us, the official government, to ensure stability and continuity of policy, and to seek to help politicians of good will to form a majority to see through the necessary conduct of orderly business.
In such a situation We will need to remind those trying to form a coalition or other informal arrangement for a majority that they do not have the necessary strength or authority to undertake major constitutional change based on a balanced Parliament. According to current polls it seems that those wanting to disrupt our important nexus of relationships with the EU will not have a majority, so we will be spared an agonising attempt to renegotiate followed by a referendum on whether to stay in at all. It is an irony of the present position that the continued support for UKIP is denying the Conservatives victory to hold their referendum. The Foreign Office has anyway carried out a wide ranging study of our current relationship with the EU, explained its complexity and importance, and concluded that the current position is fine subject to a few tweaks on benefits and borders which the Germans are now likely to want as well. It will be important to explain this to any new government.
We may also face the position of an important block of SNP MPs. It is another irony that these socialist inclining candidates may well deprive Labour of a majority. Whoever forms the government will need to remind them that the country regards the issue of Scottish independence as settled by the last referendum. Any group of MPs forming a government is likely to want to honour the terms of the offers made to Scotland during the referendum campaign. We must be ready to assist, whilst pointing out that the offers were not detailed and in some respects were different between the parties. The Treasury will need to do more work sorting out how the new tax system will work, with different taxes being devolved in Northern Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. The most difficult part for us will be to get political guidance on the new grant settlements required by these new levels of devolved tax.
I suspect any weak coalition will wish to be particularly generous to Scotland, as it may need SNP support or abstention to conduct other business.
The issue of England will be raised by some, but the political imperatives are likely to mean deferring a solution as any coalition is likely to need support from MPs from the other countries and is unlikely to see the England issue as a priority or helpful. We should have ready alternative proposals for devolution to regions and cities which may command more support. We will need to caution against hasty moves to strengthen the largest country in the union. .
In such a balanced Parliament there will need to more guidance from civil servants. We will need to be strong in reminding Ministers of their duties under European law, which mercifully now covers so many areas. We should expect more progress in European integration under the new Commission, as they seek to buttress their great advance of the Euro. We will need to explain the realities of being a good European to our new political masters.
Whilst colleagues will have to look forward to rather more work in such difficult conditions, I feel sure we will be able to reverse the recent slimming of the civil service in the years ahead. We will be able to point out that there is far more work to be done when a government is based on several parties, and when the political situation in the Commons and Lords is fluid. Both the EU developments and the need to complete a new settlement of our own Union means much more detailed civil service work, which needs proper staffing levels.
An outright win by either of the two main parties is of course still possible, and we must cover those options, but the possibility of a balanced Parliament offers most scope for the civil service to rebuild and show its importance as the custodian of stability.”