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Freshfields Risk & Compliance

| 2 minutes read

UK Election: Pre-election period of sensitivity – what does it mean?

As is customary before a UK General Election, the Cabinet Office has issued its guidance to UK Civil Servants and Government Departments (the Guidance). The Guidance restricts certain activities by the Government, Government departments and public bodies during the pre-election period ahead of polling day on 4 July. The Guidance has been in force since 00:01 on 25 May 2024. As is noted by the House of Commons Library, the Guidance does not have a basis in law instead it is based on convention. The main rationale for the Guidance is the need to maintain the impartiality of the Civil Service and prevent the misuse of Government resources. 

Whilst the Guidance is written primarily for Civil Servants, it notes that “The Prime Minister will write separately to Ministers advising them of the need to adhere to this guidance and to uphold the impartiality of the Civil Service.” 

The Guidance is wide ranging and applies to all UK Civil Servants along with “the board members and staff of Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs) and other arms’ length bodies”. 

As the Guidance notes, the Government continues to govern throughout the campaign period and Ministers remain in charge of their respective departments. Business deemed essential should continue – expanded on in the Guidance as “routine business necessary to ensure the continued smooth functioning of government and public services”. The Guidance does however note that “It is customary for Ministers to observe discretion in initiating any new action of a continuing or long term character. Decisions on matters of policy on which a new government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view from the present government should be postponed until after the election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money.” 

Whilst the Guidance provides much detail on many different potential issues, a few of the key requirements include: (i) that any Government or public body activity must not be seen to compete for public attention during the election campaign; (ii) as provided for the in the Ministerial Code, Ministers must not use Government resources for party political purposes; and (iii) Ministers must uphold the impartiality of the Civil Service. 

As we’ve noted above, essential business of Government will continue, although it can be expected that many decisions will not be taken in this pre-election period, given the obvious sensitivities around a potential change of Government after the election. 

This may impact decision making and communications that businesses are currently waiting for. One example is activity by regulatory authorities such as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which is likely to continue taking decisions on merger or market investigations subject to statutory timelines, but other major announcements will be limited. The landmark Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Act 2024 received Royal Assent at the eleventh hour of parliament during the ‘legislative wash-up’ and the CMA published important guidance for consultation on the new digital markets regime very shortly afterwards. This happened despite the late hour and notably just 3 hours before the pre-election period officially started. Other important consultations and decisions by the Government or authorities that are not on statutory timelines or considered essential ongoing work may well be delayed. 

Parties caught in the political cross-hairs may need to wait a few more weeks for decisions or communications, as well as consider the impact of any change of policy if a new government is in post after 4 July. Upcoming policy statements which indicate any possible change of direction will therefore be closely monitored. 


2024 elections, regulatory