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Living in the dark: the truth about special advisers

20 min read

Shaped by several high-profile instances where the adviser became the story, the public image of SpAds is largely negative. But have a few notable characters distorted the reality of those who work behind the scenes? Sebastian Whale investigates

In becoming the story, Dominic Cummings broke the first rule of being a special adviser. By defending himself in the Rose Garden at No 10, Boris Johnson’s chief of staff entered uncharted territory. And as senior Government figures fought his corner, the rulebook was torn up entirely. “It is a completely bizarre situation where we’ve got ministers, Cabinet ministers – the prime minister – going out and defending one adviser,” says a former government aide. “It is the opposite to what should be the case.” 

But Cummings is no ordinary member of staff. Few advisers have been so integral to a prime minister that they would stake as much political capital as Johnson has in order to keep them in place. “It can be very hard to give up a special adviser who you’ve found to be so useful to you,” notes Ben Yong, a professor at Durham law school and the co-author of ‘Special Advisers: who they are, what they do and why they matter’.

The public perception is that you’re a wanker, that you're there to wield power, and to further your own career

Jason Stein was recruited by Prince Andrew after working for Liz Truss and later, Amber Rudd. He was in the spotlight after it emerged he had counseled the Queen’s second son against agreeing to an interview with Emily Maitlis over his association with paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. “As someone who has very much become the story before, I have sympathy for Dom in that particular respect,” says Stein, who left his job by “mutual consent” two weeks before the infamous Newsnight interview took place. “It's not especially fun but it can be an occupational hazard and it is sometimes unavoidable. Increasingly advisers are becoming more and more interesting to people."

The charge against Cummings is that he breached lockdown rules by travelling to Durham to be near his family in case he and his wife, both with suspected coronavirus, could not take care of their young child. He fanned the flames by misjudging his initial response to the joint investigation by The Mirror and The Guardian. The subsequent coverage, which is now into its second week, has led many to conclude he should have fallen on his sword. “That really should have been the outcome,” says a former aide to a Cabinet minister. Another ex-SpAd argues: “Your job is to help the reputation of the minister and the government of the day. Rightly or wrongly, if your coverage is damaging that, then you’re not doing your job. I think most special advisors would step aside.”

For others, the emphasis has been on the wrong individual. “The key problem is not the special adviser, it’s the person who appointed them and continues to appoint them after seeing this bad behaviour,” says Ben Yong. “So, if you want to point the finger, always point it at the minister.” Nick Hillman, who served as SpAd to former Conservative minister David Willetts, concurs. “It doesn’t change the fundamental truth that the buck stops with the prime minister,” he says. 

The Cummings saga has reinvigorated the public’s awareness of advisers. Aspersions have been cast about the influence this unelected cabal have and the motivations they hold. “It’s as if there are all these devious special advisers who have got this grand plan to mess things up,” says one. “It often feels there’s not enough appreciation that it’s a load of people trying to do their very best and make what’s already a difficult situation better.” 

Many SpAds have gone on to become Members of Parliament, such as the Miliband brothers, Ed Balls, and recently the likes of Conservative MPs Claire Coutinho and Richard Holden. An aide to a senior Labour says bluntly: “The public perception is that you’re a wanker, you’re there to further your own career, and to wield power.”

But is this caricature a fair one? Or have a few notable characters distorted the reality?

“I was talking to one SpAd the other day who really lamented what they called 'the cult of the SpAd',” says Jason Stein. “And while this trend began thanks to Alastair Campbell, it is now turbocharged.”

Harold Wilson first introduced special advisers in 1964, when he brought in eminent economists such as Tommy Balogh and Nicholas Kaldor to consult the Government on stimulating UK economic growth. Their numbers have risen dramatically in the last three decades, with 84 in operation under Tony Blair, 74 under Gordon Brown, and more than 100 in the coalition. As of December 2019, there were 109 special advisers in government.

Their proliferation has not been welcomed by all. “I sometimes call them the people who live in the dark,” Clare Short, the former Labour cabinet minister, told the New Statesman in 1996. “Everything they do is in hiding.” Others argue that the numbers are too low. “SpAds are very thinly stretched,” argues one ex-adviser. “It means you can’t go into certain topics in as much detail as you want, as there’s not enough time.”

As a SpAd, it’s most important that you’re liked and respected by journalists, while being trusted that you’re a reliable source.

SpAds are appointed as temporary civil servants. They abide by a code of conduct, which set outs the types of roles they can carry out. These include speech writing, providing advice, policy development and representing the views of their minister to the media where authorised. The code also states: “Special advisers must not take public part in political controversy, through any form of statement whether in speeches or letters to the press, or in books, social media, articles or leaflets. They must observe discretion... and would not normally speak in public for their minister or the Department.”

To journalists, SpAds have been a source of not only great copy, but also of stories and information. “The media are obsessed with spin-doctors, and with portraying them as a bad thing, yet seem addicted to our medicine,” Alastair Campbell, one of the most well known advisers in British political history, told MPs in 2003. “The number one rule on dealing with the media is never lie,” says an ex-aide to a Cabinet minister. “As a SpAd, it’s most important that you’re liked and respected by journalists, while being trusted that you’re a reliable source.”

Senior SpAds in media-facing roles have on occasion found themselves in the spotlight. But there have also been instances where the policy-focused adviser became the story. Nigel Lawson quit as Chancellor in 1989 after telling Margaret Thatcher she had a choice between him and her personal economic adviser, Sir Alan Walters. Stunned by the decision, Walters also tendered his resignation later that day.

One of the most notorious SpAd scandals involved Jo Moore, a special adviser to transport secretary Stephen Byers, who suggested in an email sent on 9/11 that it was a good day to “bury” bad news. Months later, she was accused of sending a similar message to her boss Martin Sixsmith, Byers’s head of communications, on the day of Princess Margaret’s funeral – which she denied. Sixsmith and Moore resigned following a breakdown of relations with senior civil servants in the DfT.

Things ratcheted up a gear with Campbell in 2003, after Tony Blair’s director of communications was accused on the Today programme of having “sexed up” a government dossier about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Campbell was interviewed on Channel 4 about the charge, which he vehemently denied. He also appeared before MPs on the foreign affairs committee about whether the public was misled in the run-up to the war in Iraq (another sherpa, David Frost, the PM’s EU adviser, appeared before a select committee in May 2020). 

Damian McBride, Gordon Brown’s head of communications, quit after seeking to spread salacious gossip about Conservatives and members of their families. Andy Coulson, David Cameron’s spin doctor, resigned in 2011 after further allegations emerged about his involvement in illegal phone hacking when editor of the News of the World. He later went to prison. Adam Smith quit as Jeremy Hunt’s SpAd in 2012 after providing information to a senior member of News Corps about the Government’s thinking on the company’s bid for BSkyB.

Dominic Cummings’s abrasive style prompted clashes with civil servants at the Department for Education, where he worked as Michael Gove’s SpAd in the coalition government. Other standouts include Cameron’s eccentric aide Steve Hilton, now of Fox News, and Theresa May’s joint chiefs of staff, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who drew criticisms from colleagues and Cabinet ministers for their approach to the role.

“The people who come to notoriety for one reason or another aren’t particularly illustrative examples of what being a SpAd is. In part because however powerful they are, the job is best exercised as a backroom role,” says one ex-senior government adviser.

Andrew Blick of King’s College London, author of ‘People who live in the dark’, a history of special advisers, notes: “It is the nature of the job that they are politically exposed. It is also in the nature of the job that they are there to do things which normal civil servants can’t and shouldn’t do, and which politicians want done for them. Therefore, you can expect there to be periodic issues like this.”

Others are keen to note that a SpAd’s power is derived from the relevant minister. Should they get above their station, or become too influential, that is ultimately the fault of their employer.

Being a special advisor, where your career is intrinsically linked to the success, failure or whims of a particular minister, is notoriously one of the most insecure jobs in Westminster. “Any special advisor that feels hard done by after ending up out of their job all of a sudden obviously hasn’t grasped how it really works,” says an ex-aide.

While many go into the role with their eyes wide open, the ruthless nature of their inevitable exits can still sting. A former Conservative SpAd recalls: “For the first six months, there were weekly reports of my minister going or resigning over Brexit. At one point, I’d packed my bags in secret and was ready to go.” They add: “At the same time, when they did get the sack with forty minutes notice it was still a massive shock.”

Another says: “I remember my minister said, ‘I’d love you to do this job. It might last three weeks, three months, I really don’t know and I can’t guarantee it. If you’re happy to take that risk, I’m happy to have you. But you have to be aware.’”

The role carries with it a number of sacrifices, where working days and personal free time blend into one. “There were times when David Willets would be the first person I’d speak to in the morning, and the last person I’d speak to at night. That includes my wife,” says Nick Hillman. Advisers often work solidly every day for months before taking a weekend break at a location with minimal phone reception in order to switch off.

This shared experience bequeaths a level of camaraderie among government advisers. “They socialise with each other, date each other, go for dinner, they’ve all worked with each other at CCHQ,” says one such SpAd. “It is a whole team of people who see each other on a regular basis, speak to each other all the time, and feel that they’re all working to the same ends.”

The coronavirus crisis has taken away this relief. “Since lockdown, we don’t see each other,” says a SpAd. For some advisers, the only time off they have had this year was when they contracted Covid-19. One says this period in government has been “relentless”. “It’s like running a marathon but no one knows where the finishing line is,” they add.

Civil servants know you can only fight so many battles at once. So, they will fight you over many.

SpAds act as interlocutors between various groups – the civil servants in their department, No 10, the parliamentary party, other advisers – and their minister. At his first weekly SpAd meeting of the Coalition government, Nick Hillman recalls David Cameron asking each of the advisers present to introduce themselves. As the final contributor concluded, the PM thanked the attendees, before adding: “By the way, you are all wrong. None of you work for the person you just said you work for. You all work for me, No 10, and for this government.”

Hillman explains: “The centre of government thinks you’re their person in a department; your minister thinks you’re their person to help them succeed in their career; and your department thinks you’re the department’s person who can try and persuade the minister to think something different to what they’ve been thinking. 

“You get pulled in three ways and you have to decide on each issue whose arguments are strongest and whose do you most want to support. If in doubt, my advice to any special advisor would be to go with your minister.”

Relations with civil servants can prove sensitive, with SpAds relied upon to communicate messages or to speak for ministers if they are unavailable. “There is always a friction between advisors and the civil service,” says one ex-SpAd. “Civil servants know you can only fight so many battles at once. So, they will fight you over many.”

Nick Hillman says: “There were some civil servants, often junior ones, who would try to block the SpAds out. The smarter civil servants did something completely different: they tended to realise that if they could win the special advisor over first, then whatever idea they were putting to ministers stood a much better chance of getting through.”

He adds: “The minute you lose the confidence of your minister, you are utterly impotent. The civil servants need to know you speak with the authority of your minster, have the ear of the minister, that they listen to you, and that your interests and the minister’s interests are utterly aligned with one another.”

For civil servants, who must remain politically neutral, SpAds can serve a useful purpose. “They protect them from being asked to do things which they shouldn’t be doing,” says Andrew Blick. “Yes, you get tensions, but then you get tensions in every situation.” 

Along with job insecurity, there are few protections afforded to advisers. “You don’t get any of the perks, the yearly appraisals, the annual salary review, or bonuses that civil servants are entitled to,” says an ex-aide. Pay rises are subject to approval by the Cabinet Office. “If ever I was making a case for a raise, you just had to shout and scream about it as much as possible until you could convince them that you deserved it,” says a former SpAd. Another says: “I definitely had issues around pay. There is no one to support you unless someone in No 10 has your back. No one else in the Whitehall machine is going to stand up for you.”

This has often led to discrepancies among departmental SpAds who perform the same duties, and a widening gender pay gap. “Some effort has been made to make it fairer and more professional, but problems still persist,” notes a former SpAd.

Three No 10 advisers – Sir Eddie Lister, Lee Cain and Munira Mirza – earn more than £140,000 a year. Dominic Cummings takes home between £95,000-£99,999, according to the Government’s annual report on special advisers.

If I turn my phone off, I’ll get bollocked for it. There is no clear set hours

Little is also offered by way of training. “There is no job description, there is no guide to what you have to do. On my first day, people were asking me for my opinions on things I had no idea about,” says a government adviser. An ex-SpAd adds: “The first day I became a special advisor, it was a case of ‘go and do the job’. You have no idea to talk to or who to ask for advice or help. You are completely in the deep end.”

Life as a political adviser in the Labour party has also proved challenging, with factional disputes imbuing a difficult working environment. “The last couple of years in particular have been really shit,” says an aide to a senior MP. “In the party membership, you’re a Blairite careerist if you take any money for doing what you do, then the flip side is, to the Blairite careerist, you’re a left-wing loony if you don’t come down on one side of the debate.”

Like their government equivalents, political advisers are also expected to be available around the clock. “If I turn my phone off, I’ll get bollocked for it. There is no clear set hours,” says an adviser, who was once forced to come back to work soon after suffering a family bereavement. “There’s very much an emotional element to it that is used to manipulate staffers and make them do extra hours,” they add. “If you didn’t do it or said I’m going to draw a line in the sand, it was like, 'do you not care about the party? Do you not care about the millions of people in poverty?’”

They conclude: “I’ve got some great contacts, had some great experiences and met some great people. But I don’t see it as something that can be done long-term.”

While undoubtedly a huge commitment, working as a SpAd does have its perks. “You definitely have ‘pinch yourself’ moments,” says a former government aide. “Shaking the hand of the President of the United States, disembarking the PM’s plane on an overseas trip, those things are strange, because by definition they don’t happen to very many people.”

A former SpAd adds: “To be a special advisor was a very privileged position. You had direct access to the ministers, whatever information you wanted, and you did have a steer over the department.”

During national crises, attention descends on 10 Downing Street. “The focus of the media, the focus of political debate, what the parliamentary party is thinking, it really zeroes in on No 10,” says a former government official.

Typically, each Cabinet minister employs two advisers, though some – such as the chancellor – often have more. In No 10, the number is significantly higher, with more than forty advisers currently working for Downing Street. Advisers for the quad – Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak and Dominic Raab – are said to be “completely swamped”, according to an insider.

Dan Corry, the CEO of charity think tank NPC, was an economic adviser to Gordon Brown during the financial crisis. “They are in uncharted territory now, but at that point we were too,” says Corry, who also led the No 10 policy unit. “We didn’t know what would happen. Along with the hard work, of which there was a lot, there was also a desire to get it right.”

Paul Harrison worked as an adviser to Jeremy Hunt before being recruited by Downing Street to work as press secretary to Theresa May. “The intensity, level of focus and scrutiny is higher in No 10,” he says. “Being a spokesman for the health secretary and being a spokesman for the prime minister I found both different and tougher by a matter of several degrees.”

You don’t need to be watching Newsnight and shouting at the telly because they’re covering it wrong

Along with Corry, Harrison became more cognisant of his experiences after leaving government. Indeed, adjusting to life after serving in Downing Street can prove difficult. “Apart from anything else, as a policy-focused person, you’ve done the best job you could ever have. So you think: what do I do next?” says Corry.

He continues: “Complete exhaustion is one of the things that hits you. It is nice to be able to relax with family. In particular for my first spell as a special advisor when my kids were younger, they still say we never saw you in those days. Even weaning yourself off watching every bloody news programme is quite hard. You don’t need to be watching Newsnight and shouting at the telly because they’re covering it wrong. So, you slowly normalise.”

Harrison agrees. “For me at least, there was a certain amount of coming to terms with what it is that happened to you,” he says. “There are people - and I think this about myself, although with gratitude rather than regret - who have to accept that at the moment they leave No 10 they have finished with the most interesting job they are ever going to do."

One former aide to a Cabinet minister says: “What I don’t miss is that feeling of your guard always being up. It has to be, because you could always get a WhatsApp from an MP or a journalist about something and you have to deal with it immediately. It’s a very stressful job because it is just relentless.”

Dominic Cummings has ruffled several feathers since he returned to government in the summer of 2019. Lynn Davidson was shuffled out of her role as a special adviser at the MoD in February, soon after reportedly criticising Cummings over his approach to government advisers. Earlier, Sajid Javid had quit as chancellor rather than allow five of his aides to be sacked and replaced by a new unit of advisers that would serve No 10 and the Treasury. This came after Sonia Khan, one of Javid’s aides, was sacked by Cummings the previous September.

In a provocative statement, Cummings moved the weekly SpAd meeting to 6pm on Fridays. One of those to attend the sessions, which were regularly leaked to the media, says: “I don’t warm to him at all. Ninety percent of the meetings were very boring parish notices.” They add: “There was always the one or two soundbites that they wanted to get out or would hope that [Times deputy political editor] Steve Swinford would tweet about it that evening.”

Advisers have largely gained their reputation from those who become known to the public. For any one such story, however, there are more than 100 SpAds behind the scenes carrying out their work.

“The best special advisors are the ones you’ve never heard of,” argues Ben Yong. He cites Geoffrey Norris, who advised Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on industrial policy, as an example. “He was an extremely powerful and effective Spad. If you wanted to get something done you would go through Geoffrey Norris. But no one knew who he was.”

Nick Hillman says: “Not all spads have elephant-thick skin. They go into it because they are interested in policy – they have a political viewpoint – but they want to make things better. A lot of SpAds don’t want to be the story themselves.”

Like party whips, part of the intrigue comes from the fact that, in normal circumstances, we never hear from advisers. The reality is then distorted by instances where the advisor broke the cardinal rule: never become the story.

“People get very excited about special advisors and what they do,” says an ex-aide. “A lot of the job is a bit mundane, day-to-day. They are there to do a job, and the vast majority of them work very well with civil servants and their ministers. It’s not the cloak and dagger, clandestine figure that people perhaps think.”

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