Labour streets ahead as Starmer requests talks for change of government

Major opinion poll suggests Conservatives are on course for a 1997-style electoral wipeout

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer during the weekly session of Prime Minster's Questions. AFP
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Labour leader Keir Starmer has requested talks with the Civil Service to prepare for a potential change in government if the party wins at the next election, as polls show the Conservatives are facing a repeat of the landslide defeat they suffered in 1997.

The letter to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, which was sent on Wednesday, comes days after Prime Minister Rishi Sunak signed off on the discussions, which are routine as an election approaches.

The meetings will be an opportunity for Labour to discuss its plans for government and establish relationships in Whitehall.

The process, which will be overseen by Mr Case, is expected to begin before the end of the month.

"Keir Starmer has today written to the Cabinet Secretary to begin the access talks process,” a Labour Party spokeswoman said.

It comes following a week of dire polls for the Conservatives, the latest of which, a YouGov survey for The Times released on Thursday, shows support for the party has fallen to just 20 per cent, a level last seen in October 2022, just before Liz Truss was forced out. The result means Labour now has a 27-point lead.

A survey by Savanta published on Tuesday put Labour 17 points ahead of Mr Sunak's Conservatives, while another major opinion poll published this week suggested the Tories are facing a repeat of the 1997 defeat under John Major.

That YouGov survey of 14,00 people, commissioned by Conservative Britain Alliance, indicated that the Conservatives could hold on to as few as 169 seats, with Labour entering Downing Street with 385 seats.

Speaking at a press conference on Thursday following the passing of a vote on the government's controversial Rwanda plan, Mr Sunak criticised Mr Starmer for not having a plan to deal with illegal immigration, despite days of rebellions from his own MPs on the issue.

Mr Sunak said the vote showed the Conservative Party was "completely united", suggesting the Labour leader was sniping from the sidelines.

The bill attempts to sidestep that ruling by passing legislation via parliament that states the central African country is safe for deportations.

But some of his hardline Conservative MPs argue the current bill does not go far enough and have tabled amendments to deny asylum seekers the right to appeal.

Mr Sunak said: "The Conservative Party last night demonstrated that they are completely united in wanting to stop the boats. This Bill passed with an overwhelming majority in Parliament."

His comments came as the Home Office said 358 migrants crossed the Channel on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, Mr Starmer has said he has "no skeletons in the closet" from his time in charge of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

He told an ITV documentary being broadcast on Thursday that while mistakes were made when he was in charge of the CPS from 2008 to 2013, there is no "smoking gun" for the Tories to use against him as the two major UK parties prepare to embark a general election campaign.

"If they want to attack me for decisions when I was director of public prosecutions, we had 7,000 staff, we made nearly a million decisions a year," he said in an interview for the ITV programme Keir Starmer: Up Close – Tonight, airing on Thursday on ITV.

He added: "Will there be mistakes there? Of course there will, but there'll be no smoking gun, no skeletons in the closet."

Access talks are held in the run-up to a general election, and are the only chance for the opposition and the Civil Service to exchange information before a potential handover date after the election.

The leader of the opposition must write to the prime minister requesting the meetings to initiate the process.

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By convention, the prime minister is expected to respond by authorising the talks ahead of an election.

Reports had suggested that Mr Sunak had delayed agreeing to the meetings but the Cabinet Office last week confirmed he had given the go-ahead.

In a statement issued on Thursday, a Cabinet Office spokesman said: "In line with the long-standing process set out in the cabinet manual, the Prime Minister has authorised access talks between the official opposition and Civil Service.

"The Cabinet Secretary will oversee and arrange these discussions."

Mr Sunak has said it is his "working assumption" that he will send the nation to the polls to elect a new Westminster government in the second half of 2024, with October or November thought to be most likely.

Make up of the UK Parliament

Updated: January 18, 2024, 11:27 AM