OPINION: From spad to good? After Timothy and Hill, now is the time to end government by fear and abuse
The former DWP permanent secretary argues for a return to civility in the corridors of power, and offers his tips for preventing the ascendance of overmighty special advisers whose presence crushes open debate and discussion
I have never met the famous – now infamous – special advisers to Theresa May, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, who have fallen on their swords in the wake of the disastrous election called by the prime minister.
But I had certainly heard a great deal about them from both current and former insiders long before the election. I have no idea if everything I was told was true.
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But the picture that came across – now reinforced by everything that has been written since the election – was of an all-powerful duopoly controlling access to Theresa May, first as home secretary and then as prime minister, holding near total sway over cabinet ministers and senior civil servants alike, ordering what they could and couldn’t do and taking no prisoners if anyone had the temerity to stand up to them.
It is tempting to think of all this simply as an aberration, to welcome Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill’s demise and to hope they find less-contentious employment elsewhere.
But, sadly, this is not an isolated example. The Gordon Brown era at both the Treasury and No. 10 – and here I can speak from personal experience – was also characterised by an inner circle of political and special advisers who prevented all but those regarded as sufficiently loyal to “Gordon” from getting access to him. And they made clear – often in the most earthy language – what would happen to anyone, be they cabinet ministers or mere mortals, thought to be standing in Gordon’s way.
While the Blair and Cameron premierships were generally less adversarial, and more prepared to discuss and debate, there were still, in both cases, figures in their immediate entourage who displayed at least some of these same behaviours.
Does it have to be like this? In the modern era there will of course always have to be gatekeepers to the prime minister and ministers (sadly the Lincoln White House in which several hours were set aside each day simply for “citizens” to walk in and meet to their president is now unimaginable); the prime minister and senior cabinet ministers will always need an inner circle of trusted political advisers; and we are naïve if we think that the language in which government is conducted, with all the huge pressures upon it, is ever going to resemble a vicarage tea party.
But that doesn’t mean that the opposite extreme of government by fear and abuse, which is what it can all too easily become if those close to the holders of power are given unrestrained power and license, is a model to be advocated.
On the contrary, it carries huge risks of inconvenient facts, and people, being kept from the table, of key decisions being taken without any real debate or discussion and of those wanting to offer an alternative viewpoint being cowed into silence. Most important of all, as we have just had vividly illustrated, it substantially increases the chances of extremely poor decisions being taken.
And it is not just about what is done; the language in which government is conducted matters. I saw in my time just how corrosive it is of the duty to speak truth unto power when those having the courage to do so are subjected to totally unprintable responses. Only the very bravest will raise their heads above the parapet again on a subsequent occasion.
So what can be done?
I would like to see those appointed to special and political adviser positions having to observe a much stronger code of conduct requiring them, amongst other things, to recognise their unelected status and to behave at all times within acceptable norms.
I would like the behaviours of those in the most senior such positions to be subject to annual review by a respected public figure of integrity and experience outside of government and one plainly not susceptible to political influence. I would like that individual to have the power in extremis to recommend their suspension or removal from office, and I would like the working of these procedures to be subject to annual scrutiny by an appropriate parliamentary committee.
None of this would be a guarantee of avoiding overbearing and overmighty special and political advisers in the future. But it would be a start. As we enter an era of unprecedented political uncertainty we need more than ever to promote an atmosphere within government of genuine debate and discussion, free from retribution and abuse, and one which gives ministers the best possible chance of making good decisions in the interests of us all. We need, in short, a return to civility.
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