We approached the big black door of Number 10 Downing Street full of pride and a little trepidation. Someone pulled back the brass knocker and let it fall. Inside, the policeman opened it up and said, ‘Yes?’
‘We’re here for the special advisers’ meeting.’
‘Bin door. Go round the side and you’ll find another door. Someone will let you in.’
We wandered around and found a rarely used and heavily secured door with an iron grille, knocked repeatedly and waited. Eventually, we were let in. Someone barked at us to write our names on sticky notes and put them on our phones, which we deposited on two rickety tables just inside the door. Climbing the backstairs, we received our first experience of the labyrinthine world that is Number 10 and found ourselves in one of the grander rooms. It was a brutally effective way to bring the new crop of special advisers down to earth.
According to empirical work by University College London’s Constitution Unit:
‘Special advisers are mostly male and highly educated, usually in the humanities or social sciences, and have a strongly political background. Most are appointed in their early thirties, stay in post for three years or less, serving just one minister.’
I had exactly this sort of background. I had previously worked in the Houses of Parliament, as the chief of staff to a member of the shadow cabinet. That is actually poorer preparation than might be supposed. The House of Commons often resembles 650 small businesses that occupy the same buildings. Each MP has a small number of staff, some of whom might be based outside London, and their offices can feel more like micro-businesses than part of a great ship of state.
The roles are different too. As chief of staff to a shadow minister, you are a vital part of the engine that keeps that politician on the road, completing research, dealing with the media and liaising with the party.