Partygate and the special advisers’ code of conduct: lessons for the new Downing Street Chief of Staff

Following the publication of Sue Gray’s report update, the Prime Minister announced his intention to reform the Downing Street machine. Robert Hazell, author of an authoritative study of the way special advisers work, argues that this presents an opportunity to revise the code of conduct that regulates their behaviour, and that incoming Chief of Staff Steve Barclay would be wise to take it.

Towards the end of his statement in the House of Commons on 31 January Boris Johnson said that he would ‘sort out what Sue Gray rightly calls the “fragmented and complicated” leadership structures of Downing Street’. He undertook to do two things:

  • create an Office of the Prime Minister, with a Permanent Secretary to lead Number 10.
  • review the civil service and special adviser codes of conduct to make sure that those codes are properly enforced.

Three days later Munira Mirza, the PM’s Head of Policy, resigned, swiftly followed by the resignations of Dan Rosenfield, the PM’s Chief of Staff, Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary, and Jack Doyle, director of communications. On 5 February it was announced that the Cabinet Office Minister Steve Barclay was to be the new Chief of Staff. This blog is addressed to him, and the new Permanent Secretary in Number 10, as they consider what changes might be required to the Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct.  It draws upon the research done for a book by Ben Yong and myself, Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do, and why they matter, a year-long project including over 100 interviews with ministers, special advisers and senior officials.

The first point to make is that under the Ministerial Code and the Special Advisers’ Code of Conduct it is the PM who is responsible for the special advisers in No 10.  That is clearly spelled out in paragraph 3.3 of the Ministerial Code, and paragraph 9 of the Code of Conduct, which contain identical wording:

The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment.

The Ministerial Code goes on to say:

Individual Ministers will be accountable to the Prime Minister, Parliament and the public for their actions and decisions in respect of their special advisers.

And the Code of Conduct states:

It is also the appointing Minister’s responsibility to ensure that their special adviser(s) adhere to this Code of Conduct.

With the previous paragraph in the Code of Conduct reminding Special Advisers that:

Special advisers are bound by the standards of integrity and honesty required of all civil servants as set out in the Civil Service Code.

So there is no wriggle room here.  If special advisers in Number 10 have fallen below the required standards of integrity and honesty, the PM is responsible; and the PM is accountable to parliament and the public for their conduct. But the second point to make is that although the PM may be ultimately responsible, to expect him to look after the management of all of his special advisers is completely unrealistic. The PM is an exceptionally busy person.  So it is a responsibility which must be delegated: the rest of this blog considers, to whom.  Should the management and conduct of special advisers be the responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary, the Permanent Secretary, or the Chief of Staff?

Our interviewees for the book included former Cabinet Secretaries. One of them said:

In theory ministers are in charge of disciplining and the like, and that means that nobody is in charge. Ministers don’t do it, they don’t like doing it. I’ve had personal experience of there being complaints to me about special advisers, where I’ve gone to the minister concerned and said: ‘This is a problem. This special adviser is not behaving properly…’ The minister has said: ‘That’s very tough; can you sort it out, please?’

But the Cabinet Secretary has no power to sort it out, because he has no formal role in relation to special advisers.  Our interviewee continued:

It’s not part of their training to give feedback and to manage people, so ministers have turned out to be pretty hopeless at this process. Indeed, I have therefore stood in when the situation has got bad and had words with special advisers to say: ‘This can’t go on; you can’t carry on like this.’ Really there’s no backing to me doing that … Because there’s no backing to it, it has limited effectiveness.

The second possibility would be to delegate responsibility to the Permanent Secretary. At present Number 10 doesn’t have one; but even if that is remedied, it would be a mistake to make the Permanent Secretary responsible for the conduct of special advisers.  The Jo Moore/Stephen Byers affair illustrated the difficulty. As the Public Administration Select Committee found in their 2002 inquiry, Lessons of Recent Events at the former DTLR,  Jo Moore’s conduct placed the Permanent Secretary, Richard Mottram, in an impossible position: Mottram had to maintain a good relationship with his Secretary of State, and despite repeated difficulties, Byers was reluctant to dismiss Moore. When the Committee on Standards in Public Life conducted a wider inquiry, Defining the Boundaries: Relations between Ministers, Special Advisers and the Permanent Civil Service, they accepted the Permanent Secretary could not be made responsible for the conduct of a special adviser when the power of dismissal lay with the minister. Instead they recommended amending the Ministerial Code to make clear that ministers were personally accountable for the management and discipline of their special advisers (see paragraph 3.3 above).

The third possibility would be for the Chief of Staff to be responsible for the management and conduct of special advisers. This is what we concluded in our book: responsibility for discipline cannot be separated from responsibility for day-to-day supervision. It is far more important to ensure good performance and good conduct through proper support and supervision; but for special advisers such support is seriously lacking. They operate in a twilight zone, with no proper induction or training, and no one to whom they can formally turn for advice. Under the coalition government that started to change, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats both appointing a Deputy Chief of Staff with specific responsibility for supervising the other special advisers. They in turn enlisted senior special advisers to manage different teams.

This shows the way forward.  At the last count (July 2021) there were almost 120 special advisers. The Chief of Staff cannot possibly be responsible for managing them all. But he should be responsible for putting in place a system for their management, to ensure they have proper support and supervision, including regular feedback and annual appraisals. The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 provides that ‘A special advisers code may permit a special adviser to exercise any power… in relation to another special adviser’ (section 8(6)). This is the gap that needs to be filled in the Code of Conduct, making the Chief of Staff formally responsible for the management of special advisers, but enabling him to delegate responsibility to a deputy; the deputy in turn could appoint senior special advisers, each responsible for day-to-day support and supervision of smaller teams. The former Cabinet Secretary we interviewed came to a similar conclusion:

Ultimately the problem with this group is that they don’t have any career structure, there’s no accountability. What I would like to see is a post of Chief Political Adviser in No 10, whose job was to be the senior spad, and reporting to the Prime Minister directly… That person would be in charge of the appraisal and the behaviour, and ensuring a Code of Conduct of all the spads working within government.

One final point to be made is about the growing number of special advisers in Number 10.  Their numbers have exploded: from an average of 10 under Thatcher and Major, to 25 under Blair and Brown, to 35 under Cameron and May, and now to 50 under Johnson.  In the Commons debate on 31 January Bernard Jenkin, who chairs the Commons Liaison Committee, said ‘We cannot see the point of such a large Number 10 superstructure; it needs to be slimmed down and streamlined’.

In the research for our book we asked people about the Number 10 policy unit. Our interviewees were agreed on two things: that the ideal model was a mix of special advisers and civil servants; and that the quality of the people was far more important than the quantity. They also suggested that Number 10 did not necessarily need one person per Whitehall department:

Prime Ministers should only have a few priorities if they want to achieve anything. So there should be really heavyweight figures for each of the four or five priorities that the Prime Minister has. Then you can have younger, less significant figures, or civil servants, covering three or four departments (former senior adviser, Number 10).

It clogs up the machine if Number 10 feels it has to intervene on anything and everything. Complaints about the ‘teenyboppers’ in Number 10 are not new, but under Johnson they have become a byword for interference, infighting and delay, with decisions over minor things like public appointments stuck for months or even years. If there is a clear-out of some of the more junior special advisers they need not all be replaced: streamlining which leads to less interference and faster decisions would be welcomed throughout Whitehall.

About the author

Robert Hazell is the founder and former Director of the Constitution Unit, and co-author of Special Advisers: Who they are, what they do, and why they matter.