Special advisers can make powerful enemies — but the Whitehall system might grind to a halt without them.
LONDON — Is Dominic Cummings really so special?
As the dust settles in Westminster after seven hours of jaw-dropping testimony to MPs from Boris Johnson’s former chief aide this week, it’s worth remembering Cummings was just one in a long line of over-powerful, over-hyped special advisers who have dominated British politics for the past 25 years.
Tellingly, controversy and scandal have followed each and every one.
Tony Blair had Alastair Campbell, his fiery director of communications, notorious for his alleged role in “sexing up” the government’s case for war in Iraq. Gordon Brown had Damian McBride, a hard-drinking spin doctor forced to quit over an apparent plot to spread scurrilous gossip about Tory opponents. David Cameron had Andy Coulson, forced to resign — and then jailed — for misdemeanours relating to his previous job as a tabloid newspaper editor.
Most recently, Theresa May had Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, two all-powerful chiefs of staff who wrote her policies, her speeches and much else besides. Their central role at the very heart of her operation would prove a poisoned chalice — for it was they who furious Tory colleagues forced to carry the can for May’s 2017 election disaster.
“I think if I’m really honest, I’d say that there might have been a bit too much of me in a lot of what Theresa did say,” Timothy reflects on POLITICO’s Westminster Insider podcast.
“When she made the speech on her first evening as prime minister, I remember somebody — I think it was a Tory MP — saying in the press: ‘That was pure Nick Timothy.’ And you know, I did write that. People react badly when special advisers who aren’t elected are seen to have too much say over the substance. And I think they’re right — elected politicians are the people who should have the say over the substance. And I think for whatever reason, there probably was a little bit too much of me.”
Timothy had been a relatively low-profile special adviser for the five years May was home secretary. But like Campbell and Coulson before him — and like Cummings over the past 18 months — he found the public glare of being a top aide in Downing Street a very different pill to swallow.
“I think partly because Theresa herself isn’t a big, boisterous personality, in the way that someone like Boris is … there was a lot of focus on us. There was an opportunity for a little bit of color, and I suppose a sense of mystery. ‘Who are these people behind the prime minister?’ Which, to be honest, I hated — because you always know that the more you’re built up, the more somebody is going to try to knock you down. And obviously, I had no idea how right I was about that.”
Timothy’s sometimes aggressive style made him powerful enemies within government, though he firmly denies ever overstepping the mark.
But Peter Cardwell, one of more than 100 special advisers working in the May and Johnson governments, says some senior aides definitely let the power of their roles go to their heads.
“I didn’t see it happening with Fiona or Nick or Dominic, but I’ve definitely seen special advisers who’ve lost the run of themselves, who are hysterical, who are too powerful or exercising too much power,” he tells the podcast. “I’ve seen people screaming at civil servants. I’ve seen people being unreasonable to other special advisers. It is a very high octane and high pressure environment — and it is a very emotional environment as well. You can feel an almost siege mentality sometimes.”
But for all the controversy around special advisers, most people working within Whitehall say the system simply would not work without them.
“I don’t think everything would fall apart, but definitely things would get slower,” says Tim Durrant, a former civil servant who now works for the Institute for Government think tank. “They do a lot of stuff behind the scenes. For example, if two secretaries of state are arguing over an issue, often it can take a lot of time for officials to resolve that.”
Durrant adds: “Special advisers can talk to their ministers, can talk to each other, they can WhatsApp each other, they can go to a cafe somewhere — they can sort it out. And that can resolve that problem a lot quicker than the sort of official paper-based processes would do. And they can do that on behalf of the ministers, who might be too busy to find time to sit down together. So that sort of behind-the-scenes unblocking is hugely important in government. And it would be a massive loss if that went away.”
Cabinet ministers, too, would feel their loss — as former Chancellor Sajid Javid proved last year. He resigned from his role — the second-most powerful in government — after Boris Johnson ordered him to fire his entire team of aides.
“In reality, the minister doesn’t have anyone [else] that belongs to them,” says Salma Shah, who worked for Javid as a special adviser for five years, before stepping down in 2019.
“They’re people just like the rest of us, who have really stressful jobs, and by and large are trying to do their best. To go and do that at the top of a department, making some really difficult decisions, but not having the ability to hire or fire anyone around you, is difficult. And so having that person in whom you’ve put some faith, and who is tied to you as an individual, I think is incredibly important.”
Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/westminster-insider-podcast-uk-how-special-advisers-took-over-westminster/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication