Books

It shouldn’t happen to a spad

Ministers have always needed people to carry their bags and to tell them what a wonderful job they are doing

This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


The punishing hours, the backstabbing, the constant manoeuvring for power and influence, and then after two or three years you are marched out of the office, pathetically clutching your possessions in a black bag. As recent events have so amply demonstrated, is there any more soul-destroying occupation than working as a government special adviser?

The Secret Life of Special Advisers By Peter Cardwell Biteback Publishing, £20

On the face of it, Peter Cardwell enjoyed a much more glamorous career while he was working in television, both on Newsnight and Good Morning Britain. But becoming a special adviser was his dream. “I lived an amazing life,” he writes, “doing the best job in the world — quite literally helping to run the country.”

Getting the job was surprisingly easy. He simply sent his details to a contact, Fiona Hill, who in 2016 was chief of staff to the new prime minister Theresa May. Four days later he was special adviser to James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary.

The Secret Life Of Special Advisers is his account of what happened next. It almost goes without saying that he found time to write the book after his inevitable dismissal from a later role in the lord chancellor’s department. The blow was officially delivered by Lee Cain, then 10 Downing Street’s director of communications, who explained: “The prime minister no longer has confidence in your ability to do your job.” If Boris Johnson had really lost confidence in such a junior staff member, perhaps we have underestimated his attention to detail. Cain, of course, recently resigned after losing the confidence of the prime minister’s girlfriend. What goes around, comes around.

This book is very much a personal account. It gives some idea of the routine of the media adviser: trying to persuade Brokenshire to wear rimless spectacles, coping with a mischievous media storm over the number of ovens in Brokenshire’s kitchen, and gently explaining to lord chancellor Robert Buckland why venereal disease might be rife in a men’s prison.

This book is very much a personal account. It gives some idea of the routine of the media adviser

The tone is occasionally a little starstruck. “I travelled in the home secretary’s car with armed police officers, discussing what we would say to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at a foreign office reception as the police opened a road for us,” he gushes at one point. “I advised the prime minister what to say in interviews about Brexit and the Irish border, and discussed the issue with Michel Barnier at the famous glass table in his Brussels office.” There must be people who’d pay good money to avoid discussing Brexit with Theresa May or Michel Barnier.

There’s some lively gossip, though. He discreetly fails to name the minister who demanded that an afternoon a month be cleared in her diary so she could visit a Harley Street botox clinic. No such anonymity for Labour chief secretary Liam Byrne, who famously left a note for his successor to say: “I am afraid there is no money.” Apparently Byrne also wrote motivational messages to himself on Post-It notes: “Get Army fit”, “Buy ski chalet in France”, and “Have my own library (like Reagan)”.

Ministers have always needed people to carry their bags, remind them to visit the lavatory before appearing on the Today programme, and tell them what a wonderful job they are doing. Cardwell traces the history of spads back as far as Gladstone, who appointed his son to the civil service.

Lloyd George had a group of troubleshooting advisers known as the prime minister’s secretariat. Churchill took advice from the physicist Lord Cherwell, and later appointed him to the cabinet. Harold Macmillan had John Wyndham (not the author), who described his unpaid role as “a classic example of a court jester who lightened the tone”.

Yet it was not until the 1970s that special advisers took a more formal role. The government of Harold Wilson, which felt that the civil service of the day wasn’t entirely sympathetic to Labour, also introduced so-called Short Money, named after deputy leader Ted Short, to finance opposition advisers. (Cardwell, by the way, has mixed views of the civil service. Some individuals are praised, but he is scathing about press office grammar and also notes: “I did wonder what some civil servants did all day.”)

These days advisers are sometimes better known than members of the cabinet, which brings us inevitably to Dominic Cummings, of whom Cardwell — despite being sacked on his orders — is a great fan. “Many people criticise Dominic for his bullishness and bluntness,” he writes, “but there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that he is a strategic genius.”

Perhaps so, but a genius should probably have understood that referring to the prime minister’s girlfriend as Princess Nut Nut was never going to end well.

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