John McDonnell is demanding that Britain’s most senior civil servant opens talks about a Labour government in an early test of wills between what would be two of the most powerful figures in such an administration.
The shadow chancellor wrote last November to Tom Scholar, the Treasury’s permanent secretary, asking that he and his most senior officials meet him and his team to discuss a first Labour budget.
Sir Mark Sedwill, the cabinet secretary, formally refused that request the following month but Mr McDonnell was informed only a week ago in what the Whitehall chief has said was an “administrative oversight”.
Mr McDonnell has now written to Sir Mark demanding that he review the decision in consultation with Theresa May. He warned Sir Mark not to repeat what he said was the civil service’s failure to prepare for the outcome of the Brexit vote two years ago.
“It is now clear that, given the government’s current precarious position, we may soon be facing a general election,” Mr McDonnell wrote last Friday. “It is my understanding that all the political parties, including the Conservative Party, are indeed preparing for an early election.” He added: “You will recall that there had been little or no preparation by the civil service for the potential of a Leave vote in [the Brexit] referendum. It cannot be in the interest of anybody that the country is ill prepared for the decision of the electorate once again.”
Sir Mark is said to have told senior civil servants last month to start preparing for an early election amid the Brexit deadlock. Some political aides to cabinet ministers suspect senior officials in their departments of clandestinely preparing for not only another election but a Labour government. “There’s been a lot of furtive googling of policy documents,” one said.
In justifying his refusal to Mr McDonnell’s request, Sir Mark cited the “well-established and longstanding convention” that contact with the main opposition parties is only allowed in “pre-election periods”.
“Because we are not in such a period, I have not sought permission from the prime minister for such contacts to take place,” he said. He did agree, however, to ask her for talks “promptly” in the event of an election at short notice.
The Times, 1 February, Francis Elliott