David Cameron has come under fire from some Tories who, believing the Government to be lacking direction, have called for the appointment of more Conservative special advisers (spads) to the No. 10 Policy Unit (see Neil O’Brien’s article for the Financial Times). They argue that the Government has placed too much emphasis on peripheral issues – such as reforming the House of Lords and introducing same-sex marriage – to the detriment of the Coalition’s primary objective: the economic recovery. How has it come to this?
In May 2010, Cameron and Clegg had been determined to reverse the trend begun under New Labour of employing large numbers of special advisers (spads). The No. 10 Policy Unit was consequently stripped-back, leaving it unable to operate effectively. The Government soon realised this, and in early 2011 a more generously staffed Policy and Implementation Unit was created.
The question was: how should it be staffed? It was decided that, because the Policy Unit was intended to serve both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, the group should be staffed by civil servants. The reasoning was that Conservatives would be unlikely to follow advice given to them by Liberal Democrats, and vice versa. The non-partisan civil servants, however, could offer advice free from political ideology—in theory, anyway.
Under the Coalition, the Civil Service has started to exert more influence. Firstly, by its commitment to Cabinet government as a means of reaching consensus, the Coalition has bolstered the position of the Civil Service. Secondly, the Civil Service has been encouraged to become more involved in matters of policy. This latter point is a source of frustration to some Conservatives, who feel that departmental policies are being undermined by technocratic measures proposed by civil servants. This, they argue, has led to a lack of coherence across government (James Forsyth, writing in the Spectator, examines this issue). It taps into the long-held suspicion of civil servants as impractical and/or lacking in political nous. And so some Conservatives believe that Cameron needs to regain political control over the Policy Unit by appointing more Tory spads. As Charles Moore writes, ‘Conflict is usually better institutionalised than suppressed.’