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Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
Defence
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Pater Cardwell: special advisers can be crucial to good government

7 min read

They are the ultimate power behind the throne. But can special advisers be a force for good?

The level of positivity politicians show towards special advisers will generally be informed by whether they have ever employed one. Ask almost anyone who has served in Cabinet about “spads”, as they are known in Westminster, and they will tell you how incredibly important it is – vital, even – that special advisers attend and contribute to every meeting, read and comment on each briefing paper in the minister’s red box, and generally give their two cents on all conceivable issues, from the finer points of their policy agenda to which shoes they should wear to dinner at Chequers.

The fact is there are few jobs as lonely as being a Cabinet minister. And perhaps if you’re struggling to stay afloat in the shark-infested world of Westminster, knowing there are one or two people who are completely on your side, batting for you in ways you don’t even know about – or want to know about – then that’s both a crutch and a relief. A lot can be forgiven in terms of experience, character flaws and, sometimes, competence.

There are definitely a few pound shop Malcolm Tuckers out there, but sometimes this is actually part of the job

There is no doubt the intimacy of that spad-minister relationship and the access a spad has – an access not shared by anyone else, not junior minister, not senior civil servant – can create resentment.

Perhaps that’s what led Conservative MP Johnny Mercer to witheringly condemn the spads he encountered during his stint as veterans minister. He told the Institute for Government recently that spads were, in his opinion, “fluffers for their secretary of state, for they seem to do little else”. He said: “The way they carry on is just insane, absolutely insane. No other company would work like that because they would get fired… People making totally unqualified decisions at a strategic level does not exist in the private sector.”

Mercer continued: “I am really, genuinely, yet to meet a special adviser with any specialist advice to dispense. They operate – in my experience, I hasten to add; I’m sure there are some good ones – … like the kind of power-drunk politicos they used to have in the Russian army to make sure everyone was in line, who have watched one too many political dramas on the telly and think that the way to get things done is to be a shit to everyone. All with no discernible relevant background or experience, or indeed specialist advice to disseminate.” 

In one sense, it is perfectly reasonable for the Johnny Mercers of this world to ask why on earth they should do what they are told – sometimes against their better judgment – by someone who has less political experience than them, who is usually younger, is unelected and, in theory at least, doesn’t have the authority to give them directions to the gents.

And yet the answer is quite simply: this is the system you signed up for. Yes, spads have a huge amount of power, influence and authority, but that stems directly from the minister who gives it to them. And, if you’re a junior minister, you’ve got to operate in that reality, almost always without spads of your own.

Having seen the very best and very worst of special advisers in action during my three and a half years in government – as well as over more than a decade as a journalist – I am pretty sure Mercer’s experience is at least partly based in reality, although it should be added this is absolutely not a criticism I recognise of Defence Secretary Ben Wallace’s spads (whose views of Mercer’s own abilities go unrecorded). 

There are definitely a few pound shop Malcolm Tuckers (from The Thick of It) out there, but sometimes this is actually part of the job. On occasion, spads are encouraged in this behaviour by their minister. One of my bosses hated confrontation, and got me to bawl out civil servants when they screwed up – the roughing up then free of ministerial fingerprints (luckily I’m like Al Pacino; I enjoy a good shout).

Some argue Theresa May employed her combative spads Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill partly for this purpose. The normally mild-mannered Michael Gove cannot have failed to notice his spad at the Department for Education, Dominic Cummings, had a short fuse – and was a man David Cameron called “a career psychopath” – even before he joined the man he would call the “shopping trolley”, Boris Johnson, at No 10. The New Labour spads Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride were also notorious for their dark arts, as McBride outlined in his searingly honest book, Power Trip.

Junior ministers’ tensions with spads in the ego-infested world of ministerial life are nothing new. In my own recent book on spads, I wrote of one serving special adviser so head-girlish that one of the junior ministers who worked with her christened her “Hermione”, after Harry Potter’s sanctimonious sidekick. Some spads I worked with weren’t even on speaking terms with some junior ministers; one I know even ended up strongly disliking the Cabinet minister he was working night and day for, though this is rare. This is far from what Harold Wilson envisioned when he formalised the role of spad in the 1960s as a counterweight to the civil service “establishment” dominance of Whitehall.
Mercer is also wrong to imply there are no spads who bring specialist advice to their role. Has he never met Lord (Jonathan) Caine, most recently spad at the Northern Ireland Office from 2010 to 2019, and now a minister in the department? No one could convincingly argue that Caine – a former co-spad of mine – does not have specialist knowledge of Northern Ireland, gained over the past 35 years advising no fewer than seven Northern Ireland secretaries.

Has he never met Harriet Smith? The Chief Whip’s senior spad brings a huge range of specialist experience of all sorts of disciplinary, press and management issues she has dealt with in her career. Liam Booth-Smith came to the Ministry of Housing with a huge depth of knowledge of that policy area, running rings around the Treasury about five minutes after he located the toilets.

And in contrast to Mercer’s experience as a junior minister, during my time as a spad I had what I thought to be excellent relationships with most junior ministers. Some were brilliant, and I batted for them within the system almost as much as for my Cabinet employers. I pushed for Rishi Sunak to do much more media than he was as the local government minister. I felt (and still feel) that Chloe Smith and Vicky Atkins are Cabinet material. We all had a role to play, and while a ministerial and spad team isn’t a democracy, there are ways to work well that aren’t all about ego and marking out territory. Subtle psychology and diplomacy are key elements of politics, and any decent spad will recognise this. The smartest of junior ministers see that the good spad can be an important ally both at the time and, perhaps, in the future too.

Not all spads are perfect – and the system should be changed to mentor, develop and train them better. But most spads I have encountered are good people putting in the hard yards and long hours to try to make government run better and the country a better place. 

And junior ministers can even benefit themselves from working with spads. Just ask Sunak, the former local government minister. His chief of staff at the Treasury? The man he met when a special adviser in the Ministry of Housing – and the smartest person I have ever worked with – the aforementioned Liam Booth-Smith. 

 

Peter Cardwell is political editor of Talk Radio, former special adviser to four Cabinet ministers and author of The Secret Life of Special Advisers

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