Who needs special advisers? We all do

The main problem is that the job has become a conveyor belt to selection as an MP
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The Independent Online

I shouldn't admit it, but last week's publication of the list of government special advisers, revealing that there are now 107 of them, many more than the New Labour peak of 84, gives me great and childish pleasure.

I ought soberly to welcome the repentance of the sinners, David Cameron and Nick Clegg, special advisers themselves, who pretended for a while not to know their own kind. Who pretended to go along with the anti-politics lynch mob. Who said that special advisers were politicised spin-doctors on the public payroll, a New Labour conspiracy against truth and justice. Who promised to "cut the cost of politics" by cutting their number. And who now accept that they are useful and that the public interest is served by employing more of them.

But where is the fun in that? Allow me, instead, to mock Cameron and Clegg's hypocrisy and to heap derision on their U-turn. It was Cameron, after all, special adviser to Norman Lamont and Michael Howard, who said in 2009: "If we're going to take our country through these difficult times, those who lead must lead by powerful example. That means getting our own house in order and cutting the cost of politics." It was he who promised that ministers would be restricted to one special adviser each.

 

And it was Clegg, in effect a special adviser in Leon Brittan's cabinet (private office) as trade commissioner in Brussels, who promised that, if the Liberal Democrats were in government, "special advisers will not be paid for by the taxpayer". A Liberal Democrat policy paper, "A better politics for less", said in 2009: "These are political jobs, and should, therefore, be funded by political parties."

Unless, as it turned out, a political party that didn't have much money and that didn't expect to get into government got into government. So Cameron and Clegg signed the Coalition Agreement, which said, "We will put a limit on the number on special advisers" but didn't say what that limit would be, and didn't mention any of that pious nonsense about their being paid by political parties.

Then came the Ministerial Code, which said: "With the exception of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, cabinet ministers may each appoint up to two special advisers" – a 100 per cent increase in the adviserdom allowance from the heady days of opposition promises. That limit would be strictly enforced, the code went on, any supernumerary requiring the written permission of the Prime Minister.

Now there are 107 of them; 103 in the list and a further four tucked away in a footnote, as if they were something of which to be ashamed – four members of the Chancellor's Council of Economic Advisers: Rupert Harrison, Jennifer Donnellan, Eleanor Wolfson and Neil O'Brien. Where no one will notice them. Spin? This lot couldn't spin their way out of a paper bag.

So the Chancellor has seven altogether, four in a footnote and, yes, as it happens, more than two above the line. Cameron has been liberal with his permission notes, because nine cabinet ministers have three special advisers: Hague, May, Duncan Smith, Gove, Alexander, Morgan, Hunt, McLoughlin and Baroness Stowell.

The best moment for us deriders, though, came in the middle of this parliament, when Sanctimony Clegg realised that the Lib Dem wing of the coalition was underpowered because it had too few political minds across government, and he appointed a surge of special advisers. Now he has 20 working for him alone, and another 18 working for other ministers. All paid for by the taxpayer – and rightly so.

Because political advisers help to make democracy work. Parties are elected to carry out their election promises (except the ones they shouldn't have made), and they need a strong sense of political direction if they are to push through the policies for which people voted.

The main problem with special advisers is only that the job has become a conveyor belt to selection as an MP: hence last week's unseemly squabble over two of Theresa May's advisers being struck off the candidates list.

This ragged admission that the only thing wrong with New Labour's special advisers was that there weren't enough of them is almost as enjoyable as watching Tories come to realise that they should have voted for the alternative vote in the 2011 referendum. They would now be happily counting up those Ukip second preferences that could give them, according to Michael Ashcroft's poll, an extra four percentage points in share of the vote.

As enjoyable as seeing the Tories realise that they should have let Clegg have his reform of the House of Lords, because then they would have new constituency boundaries in return, possibly worth 20 seats to them.

As the bloke in the red suit said, ho, ho, ho.

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