Being a special advisor, where your career is intrinsically linked to the success, failure or whims of a particular minister, is notoriously one of the most insecure jobs in Westminster. "Any special advisor that feels hard done by after ending up out of their job all of a sudden obviously hasn’t grasped how it really works,” says an ex-aide.
While many go into the role with their eyes wide open, the ruthless nature of their inevitable exits can still sting. A former Conservative spad recalls: “For the first six months, there were weekly reports of my minister going or resigning over Brexit. At one point, I’d packed my bags in secret and was ready to go.” They add: “At the same time, when they did get the sack with forty minutes' notice it was still a massive shock.”
Another says: “I remember my minister said, ‘I’d love you to do this job. It might last three weeks, three months, I really don’t know and I can’t guarantee it. If you’re happy to take that risk, I’m happy to have you. But you have to be aware.’”
The role carries with it a number of sacrifices, where working days and personal free time blend into one. “There were times when David Willets would be the first person I’d speak to in the morning, and the last person I’d speak to at night. That includes my wife,” says Nick Hillman. Advisers often work solidly every day for months before taking a weekend break at a location with minimal phone reception in order to switch off.
This shared experience bequeaths a level of camaraderie among government advisers. “They socialise with each other, date each other, go for dinner, they’ve all worked with each other at CCHQ,” says one such spad . “It is a whole team of people who see each other on a regular basis, speak to each other all the time, and feel that they’re all working to the same ends.”
The coronavirus crisis has taken away this relief. “Since lockdown, we don’t see each other,” says a spad. For some advisers, the only time off they have had this year was when they contracted Covid-19. One says this period in government has been “relentless”. “It’s like running a marathon but no one knows where the finishing line is,” they add.
"Civil servants know you can only fight so many battles at once. So, they will fight you over many"
Spads act as interlocutors between various groups – the civil servants in their department, No.10, the parliamentary party, other advisers – and their minister. At his first weekly spad meeting of the coalition government, Nick Hillman recalls David Cameron asking each of the advisers present to introduce themselves. As the final contributor concluded, the PM thanked the attendees, before adding: “By the way, you are all wrong. None of you work for the person you just said you work for. You all work for me, No.10, and for this government.”
Hillman explains: “The centre of government thinks you’re their person in a department; your minister thinks you’re their person to help them succeed in their career; and your department thinks you’re the department’s person who can try and persuade the minister to think something different to what they’ve been thinking.
“You get pulled in three ways and you have to decide on each issue whose arguments are strongest and whose do you most want to support. If in doubt, my advice to any special advisor would be to go with your minister.”
Relations with civil servants can prove sensitive, with spads relied upon to communicate messages or to speak for ministers if they are unavailable. “There is always a friction between advisors and the civil service,” says one ex-spad. “Civil servants know you can only fight so many battles at once. So, they will fight you over many.”
Nick Hillman says: “There were some civil servants, often junior ones, who would try to block the spads out. The smarter civil servants did something completely different: they tended to realise that if they could win the special advisor over first, then whatever idea they were putting to ministers stood a much better chance of getting through.”
He adds: “The minute you lose the confidence of your minister, you are utterly impotent. The civil servants need to know you speak with the authority of your minster, have the ear of the minister, that they listen to you, and that your interests and the minister’s interests are utterly aligned with one another.”
For civil servants, who must remain politically neutral, spads can serve a useful purpose. “They protect them from being asked to do things which they shouldn’t be doing,” says Andrew Blick. “Yes, you get tensions, but then you get tensions in every situation.”
Along with job insecurity, there are few protections afforded to advisers. “You don’t get any of the perks, the yearly appraisals, the annual salary review, or bonuses that civil servants are entitled to,” says an ex-aide. Pay rises are subject to approval by the Cabinet Office. “If ever I was making a case for a raise, you just had to shout and scream about it as much as possible until you could convince them that you deserved it,” says a former spad. Another says: “I definitely had issues around pay. There is no one to support you unless someone in No.10 has your back. No one else in the Whitehall machine is going to stand up for you.”
This has often led to discrepancies among departmental spads who perform the same duties, and a widening gender pay gap. “Some effort has been made to make it fairer and more professional, but problems still persist,” notes a former spad.
Three No.10 advisers – Sir Eddie Lister, Lee Cain and Munira Mirza – earn more than £140,000 a year. Dominic Cummings takes home between £95,000 and £99,999, according to the government’s annual report on special advisers.
"If I turn my phone off, I’ll get bollocked for it. There is no clear set hours"
Little is also offered by way of training. “There is no job description, there is no guide to what you have to do. On my first day, people were asking me for my opinions on things I had no idea about,” says a government adviser. An ex-spad adds: “The first day I became a special advisor, it was a case of ‘go and do the job’. You have no idea to talk to or who to ask for advice or help. You are completely in the deep end.”
Life as a political adviser in the Labour party has also proved challenging, with factional disputes imbuing a difficult working environment. “The last couple of years in particular have been really shit,” says an aide to a senior MP. “In the party membership, you’re a Blairite careerist if you take any money for doing what you do, then the flip side is, to the Blairite careerist, you’re a left-wing loony if you don’t come down on one side of the debate.”
Like their government equivalents, political advisers are also expected to be available around the clock. “If I turn my phone off, I’ll get bollocked for it. There is no clear set hours,” says an adviser, who was once forced to come back to work soon after suffering a family bereavement. “There’s very much an emotional element to it that is used to manipulate staffers and make them do extra hours,” they add. “If you didn’t do it or said I’m going to draw a line in the sand, it was like, 'do you not care about the party? Do you not care about the millions of people in poverty?’”
They conclude: “I’ve got some great contacts, had some great experiences and met some great people. But I don’t see it as something that can be done long-term.”
While undoubtedly a huge commitment, working as a spad does have its perks. “You definitely have ‘pinch yourself’ moments,” says a former government aide. “Shaking the hand of the president of the United States, disembarking the PM’s plane on an overseas trip, those things are strange, because by definition they don’t happen to very many people.”
A former spad adds: “To be a special advisor was a very privileged position. You had direct access to the ministers, whatever information you wanted, and you did have a steer over the department.”
During national crises, attention descends on 10 Downing Street. “The focus of the media, the focus of political debate, what the parliamentary party is thinking, it really zeroes in on No.10,” says a former government official.
Typically, each cabinet minister employs two advisers, though some – such as the chancellor – often have more. In No.10, the number is significantly higher, with more than forty advisers currently working for Downing Street. Advisers for the quad – Matt Hancock, Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak and Dominic Raab – are said to be “completely swamped”, according to an insider.
Dan Corry, the chief executive of charity think tank NPC, was an economic adviser to Gordon Brown during the financial crisis. “They are in uncharted territory now, but at that point we were too,” says Corry, who also led the No.10 Policy Unit. “We didn’t know what would happen. Along with the hard work, of which there was a lot, there was also a desire to get it right.”
Paul Harrison worked as an adviser to Jeremy Hunt before being recruited by Downing Street to work as press secretary to Theresa May. “The intensity, level of focus and scrutiny is higher in No.10,” he says. “Being a spokesman for the health secretary and being a spokesman for the prime minister I found both different and tougher by a matter of several degrees.”
You don’t need to be watching Newsnight and shouting at the telly because they’re covering it wrong
Along with Corry, Harrison became more cognisant of his experiences after leaving government. Indeed, adjusting to life after serving in Downing Street can prove difficult. “Apart from anything else, as a policy-focused person, you’ve done the best job you could ever have. So you think: what do I do next?” says Corry.
He continues: “Complete exhaustion is one of the things that hits you. It is nice to be able to relax with family. In particular for my first spell as a special advisor when my kids were younger, they still say we never saw you in those days. Even weaning yourself off watching every bloody news programme is quite hard. You don’t need to be watching Newsnight and shouting at the telly because they’re covering it wrong. So, you slowly normalise.”
Harrison agrees. “For me at least, there was a certain amount of coming to terms with what it is that happened to you,” he says. “There are people – and I think this about myself, although with gratitude rather than regret – who have to accept that at the moment they leave No.10 they have finished with the most interesting job they are ever going to do."
One former aide to a cabinet minister says: “What I don’t miss is that feeling of your guard always being up. It has to be, because you could always get a WhatsApp from an MP or a journalist about something and you have to deal with it immediately. It’s a very stressful job because it is just relentless.”
Dominic Cummings has ruffled several feathers since he returned to government in the summer of 2019. Lynn Davidson was shuffled out of her role as a special adviser at the Ministry of Defence in February, soon after reportedly criticising Cummings over his approach to government advisers. Earlier, Sajid Javid had quit as chancellor rather than allow five of his aides to be sacked and replaced by a new unit of advisers that would serve No.10 and the Treasury. This came after Sonia Khan, one of Javid’s aides, was sacked by Cummings the previous September.
In a provocative statement, Cummings moved the weekly spad meeting to 6pm on Fridays. One of those to attend the sessions, which were regularly leaked to the media, says: “I don’t warm to him at all. Ninety percent of the meetings were very boring parish notices.” They add: “There was always the one or two soundbites that they wanted to get out or would hope that [Times deputy political editor] Steve Swinford would tweet about it that evening.”
Advisers have largely gained their reputation from those who become known to the public. For any one such story, however, there are more than 100 spads behind the scenes carrying out their work.
“The best special advisors are the ones you’ve never heard of,” argues Ben Yong. He cites Geoffrey Norris, who advised Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on industrial policy, as an example. “He was an extremely powerful and effective spad. If you wanted to get something done you would go through Geoffrey Norris. But no one knew who he was.”
Nick Hillman says: “Not all spads have elephant-thick skin. They go into it because they are interested in policy – they have a political viewpoint – but they want to make things better. A lot of spads don’t want to be the story themselves.”
Like party whips, part of the intrigue comes from the fact that, in normal circumstances, we never hear from advisers. The reality is then distorted by instances where the advisor broke the cardinal rule: never become the story.
“People get very excited about special advisors and what they do,” says an ex-aide. “A lot of the job is a bit mundane, day-to-day. They are there to do a job, and the vast majority of them work very well with civil servants and their ministers. It’s not the cloak and dagger, clandestine figure that people perhaps think.”