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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Senior Tory Advisers Are "Jumping Before They Are Pushed"

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking at a Q&A in north London (Alamy)

5 min read

A double whammy departure of two senior Tory advisers is the latest reason for the growing sense of general election fatalism within Conservative party ranks.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak must call an election before the end of this year, and Labour's consistent poll lead suggests they will not only return as the next government, but with a whopping majority. 

This year has seen a steady trickle of familiar faces announce that they intend to quit politics, with Tim Loughton becoming the sixty-fourth Conservative MP to announce that they will not contest the next general election. Loughton, first elected as the MP for East Worthing and Shoreham 27 years ago, admitted to PoliticsHome that the grim prospect of being on the opposition benches, where his party achieved "absolutely nothing" in the early years of Tony Blair's Labour administration, was one reason why he had decided to call it a day rather than endure another desert "period".

But news this week that a key duo behind the scenes, two of the Conservative party's most experienced special advisers (also known as SPADs), were on their way out shows the depth of malaise in Whitehall, and sense that many are keen to get a headstart on their next moves.

One is Cameron Brown, a widely-respected government official with five years of Government experience, including stints in No 10, the business department and the Treasury, where most recently he had been adviser to Chancellor the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt and Kwasi Karteng.

The other is Steph Schwarz, who alongside Brown was one of the most experienced special advisers left in the Tory fold after several years of churn brought about by three prime ministers in short succession. She has left her role as special adviser to Richard Holden, the Tory party chairman, who is chiefly responsible for preparing the Conservatives for what opinion polls suggest will be an extremely difficult general election for them to win.

One Tory figure wryly remarked that for the party to lose someone with such significant campaigning experience just a few months before polling day was "unfortunate", to say the least.

A former Conservative special adviser said the pair had done a "very sensible thing".

"They are jumping before they are pushed given the terrible outlook for the party. There are only a finite number of jobs out there for former SPADs and they are getting ahead of the curve. Loyalty won’t get you a private sector job in six months’ time," they told PoliticsHome.

Several former advisers explained that by leaving before the next general, SPADs will likely give themselves a better chance of finding a new job, because after the vote a larger number of out-of-work advisers will be competing for the same private sector roles. When SPADs quit government, they tend to move into roles in communications, public affairs and government relations — often based in and around Westminster. 

A recruiter for politically adjacent sectors told PoliticsHome they were preparing for a "flood of advisers" to apply for jobs immediately following the general election. Some advisers who are still in post are already having informal conversations with private sector employers about job opportunities as the prospect of election defeat draws closer. 

It was noted by figures in Westminster that neither Brown nor Schwarz decided to stick around for the many thousands of pounds worth of severance pay that they would have been entitled to had they lost their jobs as a result of a change of government. 

The pair left their roles against an increasingly bleak backdrop for No 10 and the Conservative party as far as opinion polls go — which this week hit new lows for the Tories.

An IPSOS Mori poll for The Evening Standard published on Thursday put Keir Starmer's Labour 25 per cent ahead of the Tories — a lead which if replicated on polling day would produce a massive Labour majority. The Tory vote share, 19 per cent, was the lowest ever recorded by the pollster in nearly 50 years. Sunak's minus 59 per cent net satisfaction rate, meanwhile, was the joint worst for any prime minister, along with John Major in August 1994. Major left Government when Labour won a landslide three years later. The latest Sky News poll tracker puts Labour 21 per cent over the Tories on average.

Tory party chairman Richard Holden (Alamy)

Ben Bradley, the Conservative MP for Mansfield, has admitted that in his bid to become the new mayor of the East Midlands, he is trying to separate his individual campaign from the national Tory party because the latter's brand is so damaged in the eyes of the public.

“It's not about whether it's a Tory mayor or a Labour mayor in there, it's about the right person to do the job," Bradley told PoliticsHome earlier this week, adding it is "clearly not a brilliant national picture" that he is trying to overcome.

While the general mood remains gloomy for the Tories, in private there is growing hope that Andy Street and Ben Houchen, the Conservative mayors of the West Midlands and Tees Valley respectively, will be re-elected at the 2 May local elections after recent concern that the two most senior Tories outside of Westminster were at risk of stunning defeats. A Savanta poll published on Thursday gave Street a narrow two per cent lead over Labour's Richard Parker.

The pair holding on would provide a boost for Sunak — but a limited one. 

The Conservatives are expected to lose hundreds of council seats that night, and significant swings away from Street and Houchen will only add to the nerves of Tory MPs in those regions heading into the next general election. A strong performance by Richard Tice's Reform in the Blackpool South by-election on the same day, which Labour is almost certain to win, will further fuel concern within Tory ranks about the electoral risk posed by the right-wing party.

With senior advisers calling it a day, the list of departing Tory MPs growing longer, and the opinion polls widening in Labour's favour, the task facing the Prime Minister in trying to turn the tide looks to have become bigger.

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