Former special advisers in Cabinet 1979-2013

As part of our project on special advisers the Constitution Unit has produced a brief research note looking at special advisers who went on to become Cabinet Ministers. This blog post picks out some key findings and offers some thoughts about what the findings tell us about special advisers and wider concern with the professionalisation of politics.

In this project, we are building an evidence base that will provide the most detailed description yet of who special advisers are. We are therefore interested in what special advisers go on to do after their time in government.

Among the many destinations for special advisers later in their careers are the most senior posts in British politics. The Prime Minister and leader of the Opposition were both special advisers and the speed of their ascent to the head of their parties has been noted by Phil Cowley as exceptional in post-war British politics. Both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have experience as Cabinet ministers but that is relatively rare among their fellow special advisers.

As the Unit’s research makes clear, just 16 Cabinet ministers were previously special advisers. To provide some context: Cabinet usually has 22 full members at any time; and there have been over 500 individuals who were special advisers before May 2010. Less than 5% of special advisers go on to become Cabinet ministers. This suggests that the widespread perception of special advisers as simply politicians in training is mistaken.

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British Cabinets are still largely made up of people who have not served as special advisers to Ministers. The Labour government more than doubled the number of special advisers in post at any time, and it is associated with a handful of high profile special advisers turned Ministers. Under Gordon Brown,four former special advisers were brought into the Cabinet. From 2007-2010, former special advisers made up nearly one third of the Cabinet: the highest ever proportion in British political history, though this seems low for the supposed age of the professional politician Whether such levels will be reached or surpassed again is a matter for speculation.

Lord Adonis is on record as praising the experience of being a special adviser as an excellent apprenticeship for future Ministers. He says he benefitted from it. Nowhere else does one get the opportunity to experience life at the top of government as a political actor, learning how Whitehall responds to your requests. Nowhere else can one see the difficulties, pitfalls and routes to success for a Cabinet Minister so closely. Like all apprenticeships, taking this experience on board and putting it into practice when your turn comes round can surely aid performance.

The fact that only a minority of Cabinet ministers were previously special advisers serves to remind us that there is no one route to the highest offices in government. That will come as a relief to critics concerned about the professionalisation of politics and as a disappointment to Adonis and his ilk. In relation to the special advisers project, this information helps us to think clearly about the sort of skills, experience and other benefits that special advisers receive from their job. How much of the success of Cameron, Miliband et al., is due to the skills and political networks they developed during their time as a special adviser?

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The research note contains more detailed information than this blog post and we encourage you to download it here.

MH

The latest special adviser reshuffle

The full breakdown of special adviser movement.
Note: an asterisk denotes change due to Lena Pietsch’s return from maternity leave; SSoS refers to ‘Senior Secretary of State’.

Last Friday, the Cabinet Office published the first list of special advisers (spads) in post since the September 2012 reshuffle.

It appears they were uploaded at 7.08pm that night. An hour earlier, Andrew Mitchell had resigned his post as Chief Whip. Mitchell had only just appointed a new spad, Meg Powell-Chandler, and he may have been planning to appoint another. Since spads’ appointments are technically terminated when their appointing Minister leaves office, Powell-Chandler’s tenure was abruptly cut short.

Andrew Mitchell’s replacement as Chief Whip is Sir George Young, who left the Cabinet only six weeks earlier. His return brings the possibility that Robert Riddell, his spad as Leader of the House (2010-12), will make a return to government. Young is unlikely to keep on Powell-Chandler or appoint anyone else, because the Chief Whip under Coalition has so far only taken on one on spad, giving the other ‘slot’ to their deputy from the partner party.

Since the reshuffle, a couple of significant appointments have been made at the centre of government, with Oliver Dowden and Ryan Coetzee being brought in to the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister’s offices, Dowden as Deputy Chief of Staff And Coetzee as Clegg’s chief strategy spad.

Some line departments now have more than two spads. Michael Gove and Iain Duncan-Smith now have three spads each. Another impending appointment means that BIS will now have four spads in the department: two for Vince Cable, two for the Conservative ‘junior’ ministers, Michael Fallon and David Willetts.

Jeremy Hunt has kept one of his spads from DCMS, Sue Beeby, and has agreed to appoint a second spad, Sam Talbot-Rice. Talbot-Rice is not included on Friday’s release because he had not started in his post. The Constitution Unit understands that he will take up his post on November 19 and will act as Hunt’s ‘policy special adviser’. Chris Grayling (MOJ) and Maria Miller (DCMS) are two Secretaries of State likely to hire a second spad soon.

Both of Andrew Lansley’s spads at DH have left the government, unique among spads with reshuffled ministers. The only spad to leave their post without their minister being reshuffled was Bridget Harris. She was one of the six Lib Dem ‘departmental’ spads appointed to monitor developments across government, reporting to Nick Clegg.

Three spads have moved to work for different ministers in different departments. Amy Fisher has moved from Defra to MOJ; Victoria Crawford from DFT to DFID; Guy Levin from DCMS to DFID. That is unusual: spads are usually personal appointments, and move with their minister.

Jonathan Caine is unique as spad to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. As predicted in a previous blog post, he is the only spad who has remained in a department in spite of a change of Secretary of State. That may be explained by his previous history: he was a spad in NIO under John Major for five years before being brought back in 2010. Arguably, he is an ‘expert’ spad.

But it is worth noting that the pending appointment in DH and BIS means that the Government will soon set a record for the number of spads in government. With fourteen joining and only ten leaving, the number of spads in post increased between July and October 2012 from 81 to 85. But the reported appointments at DBIS and DH as well as potential appointments in the Whips’ office, MoJ and DCMS mean that the number of spads can be expected to reach 87 and perhaps as high as 90, topping the previous record of 85 spads in 2004 under Labour. The rise in numbers may be brought about by the fact of coalition (and the need for greater cross party interaction); and recognition of the need for more politically committed advice and assistance to Ministers. But it is also a product of the rise in the number of ministers in the Coalition Government—especially ministers attending Cabinet.

Last weekend, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) published its report ‘Special Advisers in the thick of it’. The Committee came out against a cap on the numbers of spads. That was sensible: the focus should be on the effectiveness of special advisers, not their numbers. Spads are here to stay, and the sooner we have a dispassionate and informed debate about their role, the better. But whether or not the public and Westminster observers will agree is a different matter.

MH

[This post was edited on 23/10/12 to take account of Coalition practice in appointing spads to whips.]

No Surprises: more spads for No. 10?

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.’

Further information:

Unit in the News: Clegg appoints new Spads

Nick Clegg & Robert HazellFollowing recommendations in our report into coalition government, the Deputy Prime Minister has announced new Liberal Democrat advisors will be placed in government departments.

The report, by Prof Robert Hazell and Dr Ben Yong, suggested that the Liberal Democrats have spread themselves too thinly and require additional resources to extend their influence, including more special advisers, expanded Private Offices, and additional support for the parliamentary party.

The report is part of a one-year project into monitoring the new coalition government in the UK sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation.

Media:

Further information:

A good day to bury news? More spads for the coalition

Yes Liam Fox has resigned after a week of speculation. But this has mostly gone unreported—from the FT’s Westminster blog two days ago: “Liberal Democrats will have a new special adviser covering the House of Lords and five more special advisers covering the work of government departments where the party has no ministerial support.”

See here. And here.*

*Shameless plug for previous blog post.

EDIT: since special advisers work for ministers, how can they cover departments where the Lib Dems have no ‘ministerial support’ (ie., DEFRA, DCMS, DFID, NIO, WO)? The answer is that they will probably be responsible to Nick Clegg.  It’s  worth noting that the Lib Dems now have a number of special advisers disproportionate to the number of seats won at the 2010 election. But on the other hand, as the Constitution Unit has suggested,** the Lib Dems are in dire need of extra support.

**plug.

Spads: Who they are, what they do, why they exist—and why they will continue to be appointed

What are spads, said everywoman, and would not stay for answer. Everyone knows about certain notorious special advisers—Alastair Campbell, spin doctor extraordinaire; Damien McBride, attack dog for Gordon Brown; and Jo Moore, forever infamous for sending an email around on 11 September 2001 saying, “today is a good day for burying bad news.”[1] Under the Cameron-Clegg administration, media reports on the whole remain fairly hostile.

There have been some dissenting voices, calling for more spads. Jahan Ganesh in Prospect (££); Tim Montgomerie on ConservativeHome; our esteemed (and rather more flush) colleagues at the Institute for Government as well. The recent reconfiguration of No 10’s policy unit suggests the coalition is feeling the absence of spads.

But what are special advisers, and what exactly do they do? There is surprisingly little on this, academically.

A technical definition: they are temporary civil servants, drawn from outside the traditional civil service structure, and subject to the patronage of ministers for whom they work. In layman terms, civil servants are appointed through open competition and promoted by merit. Special advisers, on the other hand, are appointed personally by ministers, to work for those ministers; when a minister leaves, the spad leaves with them. They may or may not have policy expertise.

What do spads do? Most think of them as spin doctors, but this is too crude. Maria Maley, at the Australian National University, has identified five basic functions:

  1. Personal support: managing the minister’s time, determining priorities
  2. Political support: in parliament, within the party, etc
  3. Communication: media management, but also management of relations with other key actors
  4. Policy matters: initiatives, development, implementation
  5. Executive coordination: between portfolios and between ministries.

The focus has always been on ‘spin’, but the truth is we don’t know what the majority of spads do. Some clearly are spin doctors (Alastair Campbell), but others are not (Jonathan Powell’s key ‘function’ would have been executive coordination; Andrew Adonis perhaps for his policy knowledge). There are usually about 75 spads in any one year: we tend only to hear about a tiny few, usually those at the centre; not those in departments.

Spads are often thought of as bright young things with an eye to a political post in the future. They are often thought to be former parliamentary researchers or think tankers. Former special advisers include David Cameron, George Osborne, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Jack Straw … the list goes on. But again: we don’t know if the labels ‘bright young thing’/ ‘political careerist’ are appropriate because no one yet has studied them in detail in the UK (see below for the exceptions).

A final point, before this post gets too long. The focus has always been on spads, and their apparent malign influence—but there is a prior question: why do ministers keep appointing spads? Well—again, we don’t know the actual reasons. But we can guess. Spads exist because there is a demand for them. And there are at least three reasons why ministers may want to appoint spads:

  1. Ministers are overloaded.[2] They just have too much to do—so spads help ministers to determine their priorities.
  2. being (ostensibly) neutral, civil servants cannot offer ‘political’ advice; spads, often being appointed for their political qualities, can.
  3. Ministers want to increase the ‘responsiveness’ of the civil service, which is seen as passive and obstructive; spads can drive the machine because they exist outside the civil service.

There may be a fourth reason: coalition government. Coalition government may require greater negotiation between parties; spads may provide that liaison function.

Whether or not these reasons are legitimate reasons is another story. But these are likely to be the reasons ministers will give in appointing special advisers. We should be asking ministers what they think special advisers are for, and to what extent they fulfil this function (or functions). It is time we moved on from talking about spads in a largely negative manner and asking whether there are too many, to asking why are they there, how they contribute, and whether they can improve ministerial effectiveness.

Background

The Constitution Unit has been working on a grant proposal on special advisers, and so it seemed appropriate to blog on this. For those really interested in spads, there is Andrew Blick’s excellent text. On the internet, start with the House of Commons’ library research note; or  the Public Administration Select Committee’s 2001 report, Special Advisers: Boon or Bane, which is still good value. There’s also an excellent article by a former spad to Jack Straw here, which gives an insight into a spad’s everyday life. The Powerbase website has (very) uneven coverage of special advisers. On what ministers do, and ought to do, there is the (so-so) Public Administration Select Committee report What Do Ministers Do?

EDIT 14/04/11: a very interesting report on the coalition’s spads here:

http://network.civilservicelive.com/pg/pages/view/564295/

EDIT 16/09/12: I should have updated this long ago. But the Unit is now carrying out a project looking at special advisers 1997-2012. Watch for more news here:

http://www.ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/special-advisers


[1] And of course Sir Richard Mottram’s rather choice response when he discovered Jo Moore’s email had been leaked.

[2] I could write a whole post on this. Ministers have ridiculous workloads. This is partly because of the complexity of modern government; and partly because of an unwillingness to define what a minister ought to do.