Stereotyped as masters of the dark arts, what role do special advisers really play? As a new crop arrives in Whitehall, Sarah Aston asked some veteran spads to share their war stories
"What we need is something that the public want, is incredibly popular and is free.” So said The Thick Of It’s fictional special adviser Glenn Cullen, in a fit of optimistic brainstorming that must be familiar for spads everywhere.
Brought into government by Labour prime minister Harold Wilson in the 60s to help manage the “burden of modern government”, spads have seen their roles and remits expand hugely in recent years. When they’re not providing political advice on policy or managing the press, these mercurial creatures are also expected to work with other departments and with Number 10. And, despite a coalition promise in 2010 to “put a limit on the number on special advisers”, their ranks have continued to swell. As of November 2014 there were over 100 special advisers working across government.
Over the last five decades controversies surrounding a handful of spads have filled many column inches, with reports of “sexed up” documents, cover-ups and internal battles contributing to a public wariness of the role. But a significant point often missed in the debate is the idea that spads are essential to avoiding the politicisation of the civil service. Appointed by the ministers they serve, they are able to provide extra political support, which, as stated in the Cabinet Office Code of Conduct for Special Advisers, reinforces “the political impartiality of the permanent civil service by distinguishing the source of political advice and support”. To get to the bottom of what life is really like for a spad, CSW spoke to those with first-hand experience.
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What should spads expect?
"The danger that special advisers tend to fall into, and it’s true of ministers as well, is they are captured by their departments really quickly. The danger is that you just get embedded in that and you forget the political things you want to do – which is why you are there in the first place." Duncan Brack: special adviser to former secretary of state for energy and climate change Chris Huhne from 2010-2012
"The biggest underlying challenge comes from the fact that departmental spads are pulled in three ways. Their minister thinks they are their representative and should push their core aims. Their department thinks they are there to press departmental priorities across Whitehall. And the centre of government regards spads as a political force whose job is to press the wider government’s messages within their sponsoring department." Nick Hillman: special adviser to minister of state for universities and science David Willetts from 2010-2013
"The challenge on day one is getting across the secretary of state’s priorities to an entire department. That is a constant struggle." Anonymous
To feel overwhelmed
"You come to the role with a reasonable amount of knowledge – and in my case I’d been a civil servant for a long time – but it is still a very steep, frightening learning curve." Andy Westwood: special adviser to former secretary of state for universities John Denham from 2007-2009
"One early challenge was understanding how Whitehall works. I had worked in parliament for about seven years when I became a spad but Westminster and Whitehall are very different beasts. Sometimes the civil service machine forgets how little newcomers know about the inner workings of departments." Nick Hillman
"The first couple of weeks are just overwhelming. I counted the number of meetings we had in one of the early weeks, and it came to 36. The civil service is trying to make sure that you are aware of everything so there is a big induction programme." Duncan Brack
"I think a lot of special advisers found Whitehall and the way that civil servants think just baffling." Dan Corry: head of the Number 10 Policy Unit and senior adviser to the prime minister on the economy from 2007-2010
No social life
"It is hard because the work never stops, with a pile of paper to read every evening, lots of early and late meetings or events and endless requests from officials." Nick Hillman
"The work/life balance is very bad. The challenge is not to try and preserve a balance in terms of hours – because the job is pretty much all consuming – it’s to retain some degree of perspective that there is life beyond the job." Huw Evans: special adviser to former prime minister Tony Blair from 2005-2006 and special adviser to then home secretary David Blunkett from 2001-2004
"I think you would be very foolish to accept a spad job and expect it to be nine to five. Nobody that I knew worked those sort of hours, or had ever expected to. If you wanted a nine to five job you moved on." Margaret Ounsley: special adviser for the office of the chief whip in the House of Lords from 2000-2006
"You slightly convince yourself that you’re indispensable. Gordon Brown was very good in many ways: if you said you had to leave early because your daughter is in the nativity play, he’d say you must never miss that. But people can convince themselves they mustn’t do those things, and I think if you get in that vortex you will just burn yourself out and you won’t be so useful." Dan Corry
"I think the dominant image is still of the spin doctor operating in dark rooms doing questionable activities. I guess the point is that people don’t know that much about them in reality – who they are and what they do." Andy Westwood
"There is more excitement about spads than other professions, I think. They become a touchstone for something that people don’t like about politics. As a spad you get tarred with the brush of everybody else, and there is not a lot you can do about that." Dan Corry
"I think the role is misunderstood. What is not reflected in the press as much as it should be is that the role is essential to avoid the politicisation of the civil service. If you want a neutral, impartial civil service, particularly at the senior end of the civil service, then you need special advisers." Huw Evans
"Most spads work incredibly hard and it’s unfair when departmental spads get tarnished by things that Damian McBride or Alastair Campbell might once have done at the centre of government." Nick Hillman
"There was a period in the early Blair era when they were obviously the bogeymen of the government. I think things have moved on a bit now." Margaret Ounsley
Tell us a story that reveals something about being a spad
"I remember we were about to put something out and it was going in the prime minister’s speech. My brother-in-law was getting married in the West Country and literally every ten minutes I was on the phone as the final details were being hashed out." Andy Westwood
"In 2012, there was a rumour that my minister was going to be reshuffled and I immediately became yesterday’s man, with a senior official telling one of his juniors that my strong views on a particular submission could be ignored as I was on the way out. Unfortunately for them, that wasn’t true. But it revealed to me how transient the political roles are compared to the permanency of the official machine." Nick Hillman
"When I left the Home Office, the mock press release to mark my departure said that I was the ‘most stressed person in the world still to be alive’, which was a phrase that has stuck with me and was probably a fair reflection of what I was like at the time. That’s probably quite a fair description of spads now I think." Huw Evans
"When I was working for Peter Mandelson, I didn’t know that anything was going on and a couple of days before Christmas he resigned. As special adviser your job is gone overnight. I always feel a bit for the special adviser who is suddenly out of a job when a secretary of state has resigned." Dan Corry
What advice would you give to incoming spads?
"Know what you want to achieve and don’t get distracted." Duncan Brack
"Make plenty of new friends. You can’t do it all yourself and you can’t know it all yourself. At various points, quite often in the middle of the night or certainly outside of working hours, you’re going to need people to help you." Andy Westwood
"Focus on your minister’s core priorities. You don’t know how long you will be in the role and it is very easy to become bogged down in the day-to-day bureaucracy while losing sight of your key objectives. Also, remember the source of your influence." Nick Hillman
"You will have to hit the ground running, but you should consciously make an effort to learn as much as you can from the people around you. Treat them like the experts they are, and the chances are they will be a lot more open and informative with you." Margaret Ounsley
"Take a bit of time to get a feel of how it all works before you start clomping around as though you are the king. Once you’ve got the hang of it and people get to know you, respect you, and know you can deliver, then you can start to play that role a bit more (if that’s the way you want to do it) but for god’s sake don’t do it to start with!" Dan Corry
What qualities do you need to succeed?
"The main quality is to know what you want to achieve and to be very clear about your priorities. There are millions of things you could do, and you can easily just get lost in fighting the departmental agenda." Duncan Brack
"You are being employed for your judgement – a spad with bad judgement doesn’t survive very long. That has to be consistently good judgement, it’s no good getting one thing brilliantly right and seven things mildly wrong." Huw Evans
"Tact and restraint were much underrated among some of the special advisers I knew, and it did them very few favours in the long run. I always took the view that I was working with very talented and dedicated professionals among the civil servants and clerks, who should be treated with the sort of courtesy and regard that you would expect yourself." Margaret Ounsley
"Your power is all in your influence, because you are not allowed to instruct civil servants. However if they think that what you are saying is what the secretary of state would say, then you are very strong." Dan Corry