What can Labour learn from the Conservatives’ transition into government in 2010?

  • Phil Tinline

    Journalist and author of The Death of Consensus

If Labour wins the next election, the pressures of government will immediately hit it hard, as a relatively inexperienced team takes over a country battered by crisis after crisis. Learning lessons from other transitions to power to ensure they are well prepared for the handover is a worthwhile exercise.

The Future Governance Forum’s Into Power series intends to do just this. The first report in the series looked to the recent return to government of the US Democrats in 2020 and the Australian Labor Party in 2022 for guidance. Our new report, Into Power 02: The Conservative Party’s 2010 transition from opposition to government, looks closer to home, but further back in time, to see what can be learned from the last moment power changed hands here in the UK – when David Cameron’s Conservatives took the reins from Labour in 2010.

The report draws on interviews with a range of ex-ministers and advisers, as well as former senior civil servants, to explore how David Cameron’s Conservatives approached the 2010 election – and what followed. 

Prospective ministers were briefed by those with government experience, and required to develop clear priorities. Many appear to have made use of access talks with the civil service both to lay the ground for swift action if they won, and to begin to build working relationships with senior officials. Departmental ‘business plans’ were also drawn up before the election, signalling policy priorities and helping departments hit the ground running.

However, the report contrasts these thorough preparations with an uncertain overall purpose. Early on, Cameron’s modernised party aspired to repair the social fabric, building a ‘Big Society’. This was upended by the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, which forced a focus on deficit reduction. As Cameron himself has admitted, they went into the election with an ambiguous pitch to voters, offering ‘the Big Society and austerity’. 

After the election, this was visible in competing goals, as departments tried to combine complex reform programmes with delivering large budget cuts. Reducing the deficit became the more dominant objective, partly because its proponents had a much clearer sense of how to use power than did the champions of the Big Society. But beyond stabilising the public finances, the broader societal ambitions driving the deficit reduction were less clear. Meanwhile, some effective instruments of central control, such as the Downing Street Policy, Strategy and Delivery Units, were either shrunk or scrapped – while new institutions, such as the Quad, the Office for Budget Responsibility and the National Security Council, were successfully established.

So what can a prospective government learn from all this as it prepares for power? The report argues that the lessons fall into four categories:


It is crucial for a new administration to arrive in office with a clear, overriding purpose. Competing priorities will create fault lines running through the government.

A prospective government’s leadership team should agree on why they want power. This central purpose should be presented to the public as a clear narrative of change. Once in office, this purpose should guide the government, and be seen to guide it, through difficult decisions.


A party aspiring to form the next government needs to establish a clear theory of power: where it sits and how it should be distributed, both in government and in the country. This involves identifying the concentrations of power that will block the government, preventing it from achieving its purpose – and finding ways to overcome them.

This theory of power can be embodied by creating new institutions, but the new government should be self-confident enough not to reject whole structures just because they were created by their opponents. Prospective ministers should strive to develop relationships with civil servants which balance trust and scepticism, avoiding both naïve reverence and paranoid hostility.


The opposition party must have a plan for its first few days in office as well as the first few months.

This should involve identifying which complex or long-term policies will need to be started when the new government’s political capital is at its height. This is partly to ensure that they can bear at least some fruit before the government goes back to the polls to seek a second term – in which this work can then be carried through to fruition, with renewed public backing.

It is also advisable to work out which policies could be delivered swiftly without mishap, to demonstrate early on that the government is capable of improving voters’ lives. But it is worth remembering that U-turning in government is a great deal more costly than in opposition. Some programmes of change will best be pursued incrementally, because they involve gradually transforming how Britain thinks.


Incoming government ministers and advisers need to be ready for life in office to feel utterly unlike opposition. The leadership team should be prepared for the impact of being dispersed across Whitehall, and consider which existing structures it can carry over from opposition to keep those relationships as intact as possible.

Shadow ministers should draw up a clear list of priorities for their department, as a means to navigate the early phase of office, with all its shocks and crises. A new government should expect the unexpected: it should be ready to lose people, whether through personal or political causes, as the pressure of office bites. It should ensure there are no single points of failure for key government missions, and think through how to react to and exploit early crises.

Into Power 02 concludes by comparing the Cameron government to that of Margaret Thatcher – and argues that while Thatcher proceeded more gradually than Cameron at first, the fundamental goal of her project was much clearer from the start. By sticking to that, she was able to lead a transformative government for over ten years. If Labour win power again – after a period of crisis that rivals the pre-Thatcher 1970s – the surest way to deliver their promised ‘decade of national renewal’ is to be as clear about their guiding purpose as Thatcher was about hers.