The latest Special Advisers reshuffle


A new book Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter by Ben Yong and Robert Hazell is to be launched tonight at the Institute for Government. In this post, Ben Yong draws on the research conducted for the book to analyse the latest Spads reshuffle.

‘Won’t somebody think of the spads?!’ said one wag following the recent reshuffle. We here at the Constitution Unit (and Hull) have been. We’ve just written a book on spads, gloriously entitled Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do and why they matter. We’ve spent 18 months looking at special advisers between 1979 and 2013: all 626 of them. We interviewed over 100 people, including almost 40 spads and 30 ministers (both former and current).

As part of this we’ve been looking at the tenure and distribution of spads over time, both within a government and over successive parliamentary terms. So here we present an interim analysis of the last spads reshuffle.*

The first point is turnover. Of the 63 Spads who began in 2010, only 31 remain. Half have left. The majority of the initial batch who remain are connected to ‘the big beasts’ of the government (David Cameron, George Osborne, Nick Clegg etc)—or at least, those whose ministers have not been reshuffled out.

But this misses the bigger story. The total number of spads employed by the Coalition between 2010 and 2014 is around 175. In fact, the number of spads who leave has been increasing as time goes on. In 2010 five left; in 2013 around 30 did. This makes sense: spads leave because of reshuffles, exhaustion, wanting to do something new—and getting out while the going is still good. But they must be replaced.

At the same time, the number of spads employed at any one time has also been increasing (recall that in 2010 there were 63 spads; they now number in the high 90s). The result is that roughly 25 new spads have been recruited every year. So spad recruitment is an ongoing issue for the Coalition—and indeed for any government.

Much was made of Education Secretary Nicky Morgan firing Michael Gove’s spads. But this is nothing new. Spads generally leave with their ministers. More interesting are those spads who stay in spite of their minister leaving. In many cases they remain because they are particularly valuable, or expert in their field, and their (new) minister recognises this.

The most obvious ones are those working for the Leader of the House of Commons, the Chief Whip for the House of Commons and the Leader of the Lords. So, to name a few: Chris White (LOC), James Marshall (CWOC), Ben Williams (CWOC), Flora Rose (LOL), Alastair Masser (LOL) and Elizabeth Plummer (LOL) all kept their posts, even though their ministers were reshuffled. Williams and Plummer are in fact spads working to the Lib Dem Deputy Commons Chief Whip and Deputy Leader of the Lords, but they have remained in spite of changes of minister (eg., from Alastair Carmichael MP to Don Foster MP in the case of Williams; Lord Shutt to Lord Newby in the case of Plummer). It is common for CWOC and LOL spads to remain in spite of reshuffles: this happened under Labour as well—‘parliamentary spads’ build up networks and become a valuable source of institutional memory. Other spads who have stayed in spite of a change in minister include Jonathan Caine (NIO) and Denzil Davidson (FCO). These two might be said to be experts—Caine having been a spad in NIO under the last Conservative Government, and Davidson apparently an expert on the EU. Euan Roddin has stayed at the Scottish Office, probably because it would be unwise to lose someone with his knowledge with the upcoming referendum.

Then there are spads who move to a different department with a different minister. More often than not these individuals are former CCHQ or Conservative Research Department staffers. Their interchangability shows that their value lies not so much in their personal connection to the minister, but rather their familiarity with the party machine and being thought to be a trusted hand. We noted in a previous post Guy Levin, Victoria Crawford and Amy Fisher. This time around we note Meg Powell-Chandler, who was briefly a spad to Andrew Mitchell for less than a week before Mitchell resigned over ‘plebgate’—but returned as a spad in No 10.

The most recent reshuffle illustrates that the so-called ‘cap’ on numbers is a political cap, rather than a legal one. Under the Coalition the Leader of the Lords has always had three spads, one of which it was agreed would go to the Deputy Leader of the Lords (ie., a Lib Dem). Baroness Stowell’s ‘demotion’ as Leader of the Lords from full Cabinet minister to a minister who attends Cabinet should technically mean she should lose two spads: the Ministerial Code states that ministers attending Cabinet ‘may’ have a spad—and the practice has been that they get one spad. But in fact the workload of the LOL has not changed: it is heavy, particularly under a coalition—and the loss of even one spad would be quite damaging to the Lib Dems. As far as we can tell the LOL continues to have three spads. This just shows that the so-called ‘cap’ on spad numbers will give way where necessary. It has always been thus.

So what? It matters because spads matter. Spads matter because ministers (and No 10) regard spads as indispensable. They help with the crushing ministerial workload; they provide the party-political perspective; they are someone ministers can personally trust. While much of the public debate about spads has been about their public cost and their apparent malign influence—within Whitehall spads are regarded as both necessary and indispensable to carry out the business of government. So if we want effective government, we need effective spads. And that means playing closer attention to recruitment and selection.

We shall be launching our book this Thursday 11 September at the Institute for Government; and there will be a public lecture up in Hull University on Friday 31 October (with some surprise guest speakers).

Dr Ben Yong is Honorary Research Associate at the Constitution Unit.

*A comment on sources: as we describe in our book, there are real difficulties in verifying who is a spad. The most reliable sources are ultimately Cabinet Office releases or answers to parliamentary questions, but there has been no official release following the latest reshuffle. When we contacted Cabinet Office about the most recent list of spads we were referred back to the October 2013 data release which, we were told, would be updated ‘in due course’. So we have relied on sources of varying reliability: Dods, public affairs reports like PR weekly and Guido (obvs). There are problems with all of these sources, and so our analysis needs to be treated with some caution.