'Spads were often a problem to be overcome': Former ministers on working with No.10

Every minister wants to have the ear of the prime minister – but getting close to "the centre" is no simple feat
Estelle Morris had “a lot” of contact with Tony Blair and his special advisers as an education minister. Photo: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Anyone familiar with British politics will be able to tell you that government policy is not decided on its merits alone. Relationships and holding sway with “the centre” can make or break reforms – but there are times ministers will have much less contact with No.10 than they might expect.

In the latest episode of the Institute for Government’s Becoming a Minister podcast, former ministers and officials shared their experiences working with No.10 and the centre of government.

The amount of contact each minister has with the prime minister and their inner circle can be hugely variable – depending on factors such as the PM’s approach, policy priorities, and existing relationships.

On the whole, secretaries of state are “very determined to control the flow of information back and forth and do not like multiple parallel conversations going on with the centre”, said former permanent secretary Dame Una O’Brien.

“They're probably right to do that because things get very confusing,” she added. “So those conversations at ministerial level might go through the secretary state's special adviser to the opposite number in Downing Street, or they might go through the secretary of state's private office. You're heading into dangerous territory if you've got three or four ministers having separate, uncoordinated conversations with the centre.”

O’Brien was permanent secretary when Blair made cutting NHS waiting lists a priority. His “regular stock takes” on the health service “meant there was a much higher degree of accountability for what was being done”, she said.

“But it also gave a great deal more influence for health because the relationships were there, the conversations were happening. So in my experience, [the relationship between departments and No.10] is very heavily driven by the network and the capability that the prime minister of the day puts around themselves.”

Estelle Morris, who held a series of ministerial posts under Blair, described having “a lot” of contact with the PM and his special advisers during her three-year stint as school standards minister, which began in 1998.

She said she had weekly meetings with Blair and his education adviser – first David Milliband, then Andrew Adonis – and met with the aides “both on a regular basis and an ad hoc basis”.

“I think that was unusual as a junior minister, because of the department I was in,” she said. Her time as a junior minister lasted until June 2001 – a month after Blair’s famous “education, education, education” speech and the launch of his manifesto on the topic – when she was promoted to secretary of state.

Morris compared this experience with a later two-year stretch as arts minister in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. “When I was in DCMS, I don't think I've ever talked to [spads], and it wasn't a department of high political priority,” she said.

In contrast to the close working relationships O'Brien and Morris describe, Justine Greening says she was surprised by the relative lack of contact with then-prime minister David Cameron when she was made transport secretary in 2011.

“It was my first secretary of state role, and I was quite struck by how few meetings No.10 wanted. I genuinely couldn't understand it,” she said. 

“I suggested to No.10 that I produce a monthly reporting pack on transport projects… I was told ‘you don't need to do that, the PM wouldn't read it'" Justine Greening

“I remember once suggesting to No.10 that I produce a monthly reporting pack on transport projects, how they were going… I'd never seen… anyone run a business without monthly reporting from all of their direct reports. And I remember being told that ‘you don't need to do that, the PM wouldn't read it,” she added.

Another factor is physical proximity, as Jim Murphy discovered when he was appointed a junior minister in the Cabinet Office under Blair in 2005. Following a reshuffle, Murphy was the only minister in the department, which was linked to No.10 by a door – “so I could come and go as I wished”.

“For the first week I went for breakfast in the Downing Street Cafe… I thought, ‘how have I won the lottery?’”

But just as important were the relationships Murphy had built in the years leading up to his appointment to the Cabinet Office. “My time in politics was quite close to most of the people in the ‘Blair universe’,” he said, giving him a leg up.

Just as having a strong relationship with people surrounding the prime minister can help propel a policy forward, conflicting views can cause it to stall.

“I think special advisers in a way were too often a problem to be overcome,” Greening says of her time as education secretary.

“[They were] people who had come up through a policy route and seemingly been hermetically sealed from the outside world, often from birth, in the sense that they’d often been privately educated… not part of the 93% of kids that I was part of, that went to the local school, that played in local sports teams, that hung around in summer… were often opining on an education system they haven't actually gone through.”

"Once you've changed your advisers once or twice, it gets much harder… to attract talented, serious people" George Eustice

Turnover at the centre of government can disrupt relationships and create obstacles for ministers trying to sell No.10 on a policy idea. George Eustice, who was agriculture minister and then environment secretary under Boris Johnson, said the PM had “some quite talented people around” in the early days of his premiership who were familiar with the issues at hand.

But that tumultuous time in politics meant advisers came and went quickly. “Once you've changed your advisers once or twice, it gets much harder… to attract talented, serious people – because they sense that you're on the way down,” Eustice said.

“So the calibre of the advisers starts to decline, and then it gets much harder because then you're trying to explain the issue to them rather than talk it through with them as an equal. They don't have the technical knowledge to start with. They don't even know what you're talking about. And so it gets much harder to persuade them.”

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