Manifesto time: Tetris and the Manic Miners

Allegra Stratton of BBC Newsnight described manifesto week as like ‘a game of Tetris with six blocks’. It’s an analogy I like because I always preferred Tetris to Manic Miner but actually it’s been two weeks worth of manifesto launches. Technically we are still waiting for a couple to come, but I suspect that Arthur Scargill’s and the Socialist Labour Party may only be of marginal interest (but if you are, you can follow him on Twitter at @ScargillArthur).

But does anything significant come of them? Does anyone really read them? Do they make any real difference?

One important audience, though not obviously the main one (because that’s meant to be us) is the civil service. Officials in the Cabinet Office, No 10 and in each of the individual departments will be reading every word and every line as well as the spaces between them. Civil servants combing through manifestos is part of their ‘purdah’ routine. They’ll want to present a detailed programme of what and how to deliver promises in the early days of the next government. Each department will also be cooking up a batch of policy ideas and other pressing issues that they will present to incoming ministers when they arrive in May. These are the ‘we’ve had some ideas too’ files.

In 2001 I had the job in DFEE of going through the Conservative manifesto and also coming up with a few new ideas for education policy. This tells you all you need to know about how likely they thought of such a possibility. But I can rather proudly say I offered up an idea for good schools to partner up with weaker schools in their areas and share resources. This was entirely down to enlightened self interest, as our first child was approaching school age and it was clear that there was a ‘sharp elbowed’ choice, an ‘ok’ or ‘bog standard’ choice and a couple of right s(t)inkers. It may not have made the final file.

But more senior civil servants will all want to pitch ideas for the first Queen’s speech as well as their shopping lists of things that just need doing. All will come with a plan for legislation, deploying statutory instruments or making do with the current statute book with the last of these taking on more significance by the hour. They’ll also be looking for strong arguments and themes that they can take into the first Budget and Spending Review – even more so after the figures announced in the last Autumn Statement. The election campaign’s bidding war to offer up a slew of new spending commitments intensifies pressure especially after the Conservative commitment to find £8bn for the NHS can only come from other departmental budgets. Watch Andrew Marr’s recent interview with George Osborne – easily his most difficult media moment since the 2012 ‘omnishambles’ Budget.

Every number, word and detail from the major manifestos will make it into the departmental plans in some form. Possibly even the pictures. From the Conservatives’ commitment to £2.9 billion on scientific ‘grand challenges’ to Labour’s photograph of Lesley the Physicist. They all mean something.

The ‘possible cuts’ files will have a few multiple choice options – with some as easy to pick the preferred option as it is to enter a GMTV cash prize competition. There will be more difficult ones and each department will have been preparing a planned and possible cuts file. They will be hoping that incoming ministers don’t have to end up going too far down those lists and to see signs and preferences for some activities over others. So even a line on the importance of science or defence spending without a spending commitment will be seen as more valuable than finding nothing.

Bleeding stump arguments will be made ready. Some are already deploying them. There will also be other deals on the table – quid pro quos from officials – you’ve said you want to do ‘x’ in your manifesto. We can do that but we will also have to do ‘y’ and ‘z’ to make it happen. In the case of Labour’s £6k proposal, ‘y’ might be a plan for price and the regulation of private providers. In the plan to expand technical degrees ‘y’ might include a return to some form of mainstream number controls. In both cases ‘z’ is probably a decision about HEFCE, its levels of teaching funding and its regulatory role and reach.

Across government they’ll also be compiling a massive grid of possible coalitions and where the red lines are being set up. Trident, tuition fees, the Liberal Democrats pitching for Education Secretary as one of their deal options. Some lucky civil servants will also get to play each of the party leaders as they game the possible deals and outcomes. I’m going to guess at Jeremy Heywood, Chris Martin and Olly Robbins taking some of the major roles. If they can persuade him, it will be Peter Housden playing Nicola Sturgeon but I doubt they’ll bother with Farage or Bennett. Leanne Wood and Peter Robinson will need walk on parts.

Officials will also be looking in a bit more detail at each of the politicians currently holding their departmental briefs as well as some of the party specialists (select committee chairs, campaigners etc) and hoping that they are good negotiators, have lots of political capital and profile in and after the election. If they have to google them to find out who they are, it’s not a good sign…

But above all, civil servants will be lapping up the politics. Few will have time to kick back and enjoy the sunshine. They will be mining every polling and betting site well as all of the manifestos and key speeches. Purdah may provide a sort of calm before the storm, but it’s really a time of manic preparation, scenario planning and role play. And that’s before the real fun and games begins after the 7th May. Will anyone still have time for Fruit Ninja?

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