Special advisers are multiplying at an astonishing rate. I’m not quite sure how to calculate an R number, but it took 10 years to get from one — David Lipsey, who advised Wilson — to the dozen appointed by Margaret Thatcher in 1979. By 1987 there were 24. When I started in government in 2010, there were 67 of us. At the last count, in December 2019, there were 109.
Is this a symbol of growing political corruption? The takeover of an independent civil service by a cadre of shadowy operatives, appointed through nepotistic networks and accountable to no-one? Is it a growing army of true democrats helping ministers assert authority over the unaccountable civil service and unresponsive deep state? Or is it simply a defence mechanism against 24/7 media and the growing demands of tribal politics? How should ministers access expertise and political advice in a modern democracy? Who should walk in the corridors of power? Who should speak for ministers, and under what veil of anonymity?
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You might expect to find answers to some of these questions in a book entitled The Secret Life of Special Advisers, out today. But the latest offering from Peter Cardwell is not an attempt to expose misdeeds or solve constitutional dilemmas.
Instead, it is a delightful, charming, witty political memoir from a delightful, charming, witty man. Peter has seen the inside enough ministerial offices and cars to have a lifetime’s worth of dinner party anecdotes about who said what to whom, and when, and why. Conveniently, given that dinner parties are banned for the foreseeable, this book allows you to make Peter your virtual guest. Just read it with a glass of wine and a takeaway.
The book has an endearing cast of affable characters, many of them household appliances: a mini-fridge, James Brokenshire’s four ovens, and the CCHQ toaster, which apparently couldn’t be used before 7.30am on pain of political excommunication. Peter’s good nature enables him to find nice things to say about almost everyone. Characters I worked with and despised for their Machiavellian ruthlessness are somehow sublimated into feisty, friendly chappies, just doing their bit for Queen and country. For example: it is hard to find anyone in Westminster with kind words to say about Fiona Hill, Theresa May’s erstwhile joint chief of staff. But Peter has kind words for her. It’s almost bizarre when, in a later chapter, he swerves off for a paragraph to be rude about Emily Thornberry. Was that his evil twin typing, I wondered?
Only on the final page does Peter permit himself a meta-level reflection about the purpose and value of spads. “I concluded the following,” he writes. “SpAds are something we need in UK politics. They help government function as it should.”
Well, I’m pretty certain I agree with that. But I was left craving more depth, more substance and more analysis.
Take Windrush, one of the greatest scandals of governance in my political lifetime. Special adviser-led policy on the “hostile environment”, to drive illegal immigrants out of supposedly comfortable obscurity, was the catalyst for gross injustice. The Wendy Williams review on lessons learned from the crisis shows that the mistakes were long-lived and deeply entrenched in a problematic culture within the Home Office.
So when I’m reading an insider account, I don’t really want to know that Amber Rudd told her team she was worried about Windrush via Whatsapp, or that one of Peter’s colleagues got told off for getting a haircut. I want someone who was inside — even briefly — to give me a sense of what he really thinks. How did it happen? What could have made it better? How should political accountability work, when a minister is hung out to dry for the policies of their predecessor? These pages will leave you none the wiser.
Those who are suspicious of spads will be angered by this book. The secret life it depicts is one where jobs go to friends and friends of friends; where advisers eat avocado toast with their Minister and carry emergency chocolate bars; where Players Bar and the Corinthia Hotel are second and third homes; where political negotiations and stock market prices hang on a misjudged Whatsapp message or a hilariously mislaid ministerial box. It’s a light-hearted world full of people trying to do their best and then leaking the story because they had “too many shandies”.
Maybe this is just the raconteur’s art: spinning a yarn because it makes for an easy read and everyone likes a bit of gossip. Marie Le Conte wrote a book — Haven’t You Heard — based on that premise alone. If anecdotes are all the publishers will print then who can blame a lowly author for obliging? But my lingering fear is that politics — and spaddery in particular — really has become this threadbare.
We’ve expanded to more than 100 political appointees and ended up with less heft than we had with a dozen great minds in No10. David Willetts and Oliver Letwin, who served Thatcher, were then and have remained some of the great conservative minds of their generation. Michael Barber and Geoff Mulgan in the Blair years: profound strategic and operational thinkers who brought transforming zeal to the heart of Whitehall. I will believe Dominic Cummings and Munira Mirza are this generation’s equivalent when I see them accomplish something other than a campaign victory.
Special advisers used to be special. But now there are more than a hundred, the word has been diluted to homeopathic levels. We should stop using it and reform the whole concept. We need to attract serious talent into our government, and these half-baked jobs no longer make sense. Too political for most experts. Too risky for anyone with domestic responsibilities: you can lose your job overnight and even have to pay tax on your redundancy settlement. It’s a job that only really works for people who love the game and the gossip of politics more than they love their family, their friends or their financial health.
Instead of spads, Ministers need to be able to recruit a wide range of experts into their department, to drive through the agenda in their manifestos. These need to be serious jobs for senior people, not kids treating politics like a virtual reality Game of Thrones. Dominic Cummings’s famed open recruitment process was the precise opposite of what we need: a focus on mavericks with no interests beyond work, and a paucity of social skills. Instead we need to offer stable jobs, with work life balance, decent pay and no requirement to eat avocado on toast unless you really want to.