One of the worst things a government minister can do – other than invade a country by mistake or destroy the economy – is to bring one of their special advisers to lunch or dinner with a journalist without asking in advance. My old boss used to walk out of the restaurant if ministers attempted it. Even requesting in advance is not ideal. Bringing an adviser to lunch is an imposition that suggests the conversation between two adults – the hack and the minister – will be policed and less relaxed. Ministers who know what they are about are quite capable of eating and talking without being accompanied by a handler.
But this is not attack on Spads, the government special advisers who work for individual ministers and provide advice and support on speechwriting, strategy, media and navigating the Whitehall jungle. Some of my favourite people have been special advisers or are special advisers. A good adviser is invaluable to a good minister, and they are needed more than ever now with Brexit looming. Incidentally, back in the glory days of newspaper expenses no special adviser would ever attempt to bring their minister to lunch. The poor put-upon aides wanted a proper gossip and to be entertained themselves for once, without their boss watching.
Anyway, the Times today reports that Theresa May wants to limit the number of special advisers. Her joint chiefs of staff – Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill – are scrutinising appointments to ensure that those chosen never step out of line or give Number 10 any trouble. This is naughty, naughty, naughty from Timothy and Hill. The latter in particular knows all about defending her bosses corner by high-intesity briefing. Now she is in Number 10 running the country why spoil other people’s fun? I think we know the answer.
It always ends badly this, the attempt to control all the advisers and vet the life out of them. The decision by Andy Coulson, Cameron’s head of communications, to block the then excitable Dominic Cummings from a post with Michael Gove in 2010, because Coulson blamed him (rightly, probably) for briefing detail about a secret summit held to discuss how terrible the Tory election campaign that year was, ended up having extraordinary unforeseeable repercussions in the end, when you think about it.
Cummings was furious, and when he was eventually allowed into the Education department he had contempt for the Cameron team and way he had been treated. He nursed his wrath to keep it warm, while building Gove’s confidence. Eventually, long after Coulson had left Number 10, Gove broke with Cameron on the EU in 2016 and Cummings became the joint mastermind – with Matthew Elliott – of the successful Vote Leave campaign. These people won’t be there for very long, Cummings said of Cameron’s Number 10 advisers, ahead of the referendum. It sounded like hubris at the time, but he was right.
The Cummings saga – and the snub in 2010 – is almost like a Whitehall version of Ian McEwan’s Atonement, in which a minor personal drama and misunderstanding years earlier ends up having earth-shattering consequences much later.
Back to special advisers. They need a trade union to defend themselves, as Sean Kemp (once a special adviser) argues. Consider this attack from the Times today and he’s right. See what they are up against:
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“Apart from briefing against other ministers, they are notorious for poisonous remarks about senior civil servants who get in their way. Many are aspiring politicians from think tanks. Some come from Tory headquarters, some straight from university. Few know how Whitehall works and have been lampooned as media-obsessed and ambitious. Mr Cameron, George Osborne, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband all worked as advisers before becoming MPs.”
That’s a bit harsh, surely?! I bet special advisers when they are together and away from the media don’t say anything nearly as horrible about that as journalists. Do they now?