My wife, a keen gardener, has a cold-frame forcing pen. It contains privileged seedlings which, thus sheltered, are hardened off before planting. These are the star blooms of seasons to come.
In Britain’s New Establishment we call such specimens ‘ministerial special advisers’. They are placed in the Whitehall cold-frame and given special treatment. Within a few years these ‘spads’ become vigorous bushes. David Cameron and George Osborne used to be special advisers, as did all but one of the candidates in the recent Labour leadership contest. Nick Clegg was a special adviser in Brussels. The lucky lad worked for Leon Brittan when that housewives’ favourite was a European commissioner.
Spads tend to be young, assertive creatures, impervious to self-doubt, unmottled by the flaws of normal 20-somethings. I knew David Cameron slightly when he was Norman Lamont’s special adviser in 1992-93 and do not recall ever seeing him drunk or high or in the grip of girlfriend trouble. The rest of us were hosing back the Chateau Agitator at lunchtime and chasing barmaids, but young David was as guided as a Royal Navy missile — controlled, ambitious. Most unsporting.
Special advisers have a passport to the very citadel of public life. They are not elected and are often chosen by nepotism rather than merit, but if they keep their snouts clean they can end up running the kingdom. That’s modern politics.
State-paid special advisers were invented by Harold Wilson, who mistrusted the civil service and decided that he needed hirelings of his own kidney. As the special adviser flourished, so the role of the elected parliamentary private secretary (PPS) diminished. The PPS’s job was to keep the minister plugged in to parliament but, pah, who cared about the boring old Commons?
Edward Heath did some minor fiddling with special advisers, if we can put it like that, and made them answerable to Cabinet rather than to individual ministers. Margaret Thatcher was never averse to grooming a right-thinking cadre but she was pretty lukewarm about the principle of special advisers, particularly if they were going to cost the state money. She preferred ministers to do some original thinking for themselves.
Blair was the prime minister who applied the turbo-charger. In 1997 there were 38 special advisers. By 2002 there were 81 of them, 26 of them inside No. 10. Blair’s sofa-government style gave special advisers more power than ministers. To have been elected was no longer as important as being in the loop. Special advisers such as Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell were even given the power to issue orders to civil servants.Ed Balls, when advising Gordon Brown, certainly had more clout than most members of the Blair Cabinet. Ed Miliband was special adviser with responsibility for writing Gordon’s speeches. In that role he must have sent more people to sleep than the makers of Horlicks. Brown, most tribal of politicians, did little to dilute the presence of special advisers when he became PM. And Cameron? How will he behave to the sly schmoozers from whose ranks he rose? Earlier this year he promised to hack back the number of special advisers. If there has been a reduction it has not been dramatic. William Hague’s recent difficulties were caused by his stubborn insistence on appointing yet another special adviser.
Christopher Myers, the handsome devil in question, was not the first special adviser to bring trouble to the boss. Jo Moore was special adviser to Stephen Byers when she called 11 September 2001 a good day to ‘bury bad news’. Sarah Schaefer, one of David Miliband’s old special advisers, was consistently haughty to the guild of parliamentary sketchwriters. It may be no coincidence that the sketchwriters mocked her boss.
John Bercow was a special adviser (to, ahem, Jonathan Aitken). Bercow’s weird conversion to political correctitude, which wangled him the Speakership, was typical special adviser behaviour. They place canny calculation above instinct, and well above the concerns of the parliamentary constituency. Here are people employed by the state to plot to the narrow advantage of their ministers. Here are youths more interested in career arcs than national interest.
Not all special advisers have flourished. Crispin Blunt was a special adviser (to Malcolm Rifkind) and has recently hit turbulence. You could argue that special advisers are merely youngsters with an admirable interest in politics. Andrew Adonis (one of Blair’s spads) would be an example. But is there not something irksome about bright youths who suck at the state’s teat and never leave it?
Smooth but characterless Ed Richards was a Blair spad and became head of Ofcom. He is undoubtedly shrewd about political procedure but what else does he offer? James Purnell (another Blair spad) reached the Cabinet without even mastering the art of public speaking. He had no identifiable political personality other than that of his former master. No wonder he evaporated.
Letts Rip!, a collection of Quentin Letts’s Daily Mail parliamentary sketches from the past decade, has just been published by Constable & Robinson.