Nigel Fletcher is Director of the Opposition Studies Forum, a new research group looking at political opposition.
The heated exchanges between George Osborne and Lord Mandelson over access to Government spending figures has thrown light on the usually private system of pre-election contacts between the Opposition and the Civil Service.
Since January, David Cameron and his Shadow Cabinet have been having formal meetings with senior Whitehall officials to prepare for a potential Conservative administration. ConservativeHome and others have reported on this process, and noted the seriousness with which it is being treated by the Party, with Francis Maude’s ‘implementation unit’ working out detailed plans for government. This week’s controversy focuses attention on how the process works.
It is widely accepted that the basis of the convention on official contacts is the arrangements of 1964, when Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home authorised civil servants to hold discussions with Harold Wilson prior to the election that year. Wilson disclosed the arrangement publicly in a statement to the House of Commons as Prime Minister in 1970, and confirmed he had instructed the Head of the Civil Service ‘that the practice of our predecessors in these matters should be followed’.
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