Voices: Keir Starmer is still waiting for Sue Gray – but she can’t solve his biggest problem

For months now, questions about practical preparations for government have been answered with: ‘Sue will sort that out when she arrives’  (PA Wire)
For months now, questions about practical preparations for government have been answered with: ‘Sue will sort that out when she arrives’ (PA Wire)

Sue Gray, the only former civil servant most people have heard of, starts work as Keir Starmer’s chief of staff next month. For some in the Labour leader’s office, “waiting for Sue Gray” has been a feature of their lives for almost as long as it was for journalists who were waiting for her reports on lockdown parties in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street.

For months now, questions about practical preparations for government have been answered with: “Sue will sort that out when she arrives.” Not that Starmer is taking anything for granted. The ban on complacency remains in place. But in order to fight a credible election campaign, Labour has to be a credible alternative government, and to do that it has to assume that it will win without assuming that it will win.

One of the first items of business in Gray’s in-tray will be organising “access” talks: the confidential discussions between shadow ministers and senior civil servants that take place by convention before every election. When should they start? Gray will have studied the complicated precedents. I can reproduce her homework here.

At the beginning of 1996, talks started 16 months before the election. At other times, such as the “snap” elections of 2017 and 2019, they started only when the election was called. While the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was in force, specifying five-year parliaments, the convention was that talks could start at the beginning of the fifth year, which is what happened in 2014-15. But now that it has been repealed, we should go back to the previous rule, which was 15-16 months before the end of a maximum five-year parliament, taking us to September or October this year.

However, this is only a convention, and the decision is ultimately the prime minister’s. Gray’s first task will be to find out how difficult Rishi Sunak wants to be.

Then, when the talks do start, expect some on the Labour side to be disappointed. I detect an unspoken belief among some shadow ministers that discussions with civil servants will give them the ideas to make government a success. That is not how it works.

Access talks are essentially passive. Shadow ministers can ask questions about how Whitehall is organised, and they can ask, for example, if policies they propose have been looked at before. Senior civil servants may ask questions about the opposition’s policies if they are unclear. But they will not advise shadow ministers what they should do. If shadow ministers have not done the hard work of devising policy, access talks are not going to do it for them. The most they can do is expose the absence of policy thinking and act as a spur to get on with it.

In particular, if shadow ministers are hoping that Gray or the civil service are going to help them get to grips with governing without money, they are going to be disappointed. We can hear ominous noises from Starmer’s general direction that he wants Gray to help him with the “machinery of government changes” that he wants to make.

The easy recourse of a government with no money to spend is to change some departmental nameplates to make it look as if it is doing something. It never works. Starmer is said to want to align departments with his five “missions”, one of which is growth. But if he tries to create a department of economic growth independent of the Treasury, as his hero Harold Wilson did, it will end in the same failure. If he tries to create a super-ministry dedicated to green growth, bringing together energy, transport, business and possibly the environment, he will recreate the failure of his other hero, Tony Blair, who created the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions for John Prescott and then dismantled it again.

A more promising route to growth that would also avoid the need for big public spending would be Starmer’s plans to change planning laws to make it easier for the private sector to build houses, wind turbines, solar farms and pylons. But private chats with the permanent secretaries of the departments concerned are not going to solve the confusions and contradictions of Labour’s policy. Only today, for example, The Times reports that Labour will not after all restore the national target of building 300,000 houses a year, and “will not water down local residents’ rights to object to new homes”. In which case, how is it going to get anything done?

And in any case, a boost to growth from changing planning laws would hardly be felt until after the election after next. Meanwhile, an incoming Labour government would be struggling with the same expensive problems as the outgoing Tory one: the NHS, asylum and every other backlogged public service. With even less money than is pencilled in in Jeremy Hunt’s tax and spending plans.

If Starmer wins, he will have the worst economic inheritance bequeathed to any Labour government since 1945. The economy was not in great shape when Wilson became prime minister in 1964, but he managed to make it worse by failing to devalue the pound. It was in a bad way again in 1974; Wilson got the miners back to work, but then lost control of public spending. Blair, on the other hand, inherited an economy poised on the brink of a decade of growth.

An incoming Labour government will need creative policies, and it will need to have worked on them in the way that David Blunkett was ready to raise school standards in 1997. Sue Gray cannot supply those policies, and nor can her former colleagues in the civil service. At best, she and they can help Starmer avoid making mistakes. But they cannot give Labour a programme for successful government.