Until Dominic Cummings made clear he disapproved of the practice, special advisers – ministerial aides personally appointed by UK cabinet ministers as their political sidekicks – often worked from home on the occasional Friday.
Having spent Monday to Thursday being grilled on matters of state in the gilded rooms of Whitehall and parliament, their secretary of state generally will work in their constituency on Friday, spending the day in a dingy community hall at a constituency surgery, dealing with planning, drains, passports and sewerage.
It is not yet known whether his Downing Street replacement, Dan Rosenfield, is a Spad Friday sort of adviser, expecting people in the office at all hours.
But there has been a change of regime already with the trademark ‘combative’ style of Cummings now being mollified under Rosenfield. The new Downing Street adviser court now has a culture that is more emollient, more technocratic and more collegiate; and probably – I speak as someone who worked for Cummings – less intensely 24/7.
The life of a Spad is a life of extraordinary contrasts as ministers often deal with vastly differing matters simultaneously. I remember armed police officers guarding my main employer in government, James Brokenshire, in an airport one afternoon as we waited for a flight to Belfast, as liveried waiting staff served us tea. James leafed through official documents in his ministerial red box when his phone rang with an urgent matter. The lock on his constituency office door was broken and he needed to organise a locksmith immediately. Such is the nature of ministerial life.
People who did the job I did, special adviser (the contraction “Spad” is a more recent innovation), have been a major part of political life in this country since the 1960s. Some contemporary Spads are well known to anyone who follows politics: Alastair Campbell, Damian McBride, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, for example. And one person, a 2020 survey by the pollsters YouGov suggests, is – or was – actually known to 40 per cent of the UK public, with a further 23 per cent at least recognising his name. He is, of course, Dominic Cummings, previously the most senior aide in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street – the man I worked alongside for six months.
That is, before he sacked me.
But despite acres of newsprint devoted to Dominic, many volumes of diaries by Alastair Campbell, various insider accounts by Jonathan Powell and others, and an explosive, jaw-droppingly indiscreet tome by Damian McBride – which is the best book I have ever read about Westminster politics – what special advisers actually do from day to day is still a mystery to many.
The past decade has been a defining one for the United Kingdom, its politics and especially for the Conservative Party – moving out of opposition, into coalition government and then stand-alone Conservative governments, via four elections and two referendums. It has been a defining period, too, in terms of what it actually means to be a special adviser at the heart of Whitehall. The dynamic nature of politics has necessitated huge changes in the ways Spads operate and the level of influence they wield. Spads did not properly exist until 1964. Now, six decades later, no government can function without them.
One of my bosses in government, the former home secretary Amber Rudd, once asked me which wing of the Conservative Party I am on. “Amber,” I answered, “I’m on the sunshine, lollipops and rainbows wing of the party.”
Loyalty and friendship are qualities I came to value very strongly in the sometimes shark-infested waters of politics and I retain the greatest admiration for anyone, from any party, who becomes an adviser, mostly putting their life on hold for a few years in the service of what they believe to be a greater good.
So what’s the difference between the new Rosenfield era and the Cummings era? As somebody who was originally reluctant to take the role of adviser to Boris Johnson, Dominic Cummings never actually needed the title of chief of staff. That’s because he had more power than almost anyone who has ever had that role. Cummings came into government for three reasons: to secure a large majority for the Conservative Party in an election, get Brexit done and to reorganise the way the civil service interacts with the political team.
The fact that he has achieved all three of these things in less than 18 months is an incredible legacy many cabinet ministers would kill for. And that is why, despite his many detractors – including many Tory MPs – he may be remembered as one the most successful special advisers in the 56 years the role has formally existed.
In the end, Dominic’s demise was much more Albert Square than Downing Street. Just as when a the soap actor’s character gets killed off, the ‘reasons’ are the same – I was planning to leave anyway, I felt I had done everything I could with the character and I look forward to the exciting new opportunities ahead. For someone who hates the press, Dominic is nonetheless a brilliant spinner himself, however his excuse that his blog had outlined that he would leave by the end of the year anyway was a bit of a stretch.
His departure has presented an opportunity for a reset of the Johnson administration. Underestimating the PM, however dire the headlines, is a mistake many have made, including me. The new Boris court under Rosenfield is a return to an era of special advisers who are largely anonymous, even happiest when operating in the shadows. Rosenfield has been around the politico block long enough to know that the secret to being a good special adviser is to allow Boris to show his own brand of political leadership.
LIFE IN THE FAST LANE
Our guide to the top 50 special advisers in UK politics covers all parties and not just the 116 or so special advisers on the government payroll. As the part of official opposition, Labour also have a cohort of advisers paid out of the government purse. Such a guide will always be subject to change, often brutally, and the Mace will be updating their Special Adviser Index whenever the Westminster deck is reshuffled.
One thing you know about taking up the job of a special adviser is that it doesn’t last forever. A TV interviewer asked me in the days following my sacking: “What was it like to, well, to, erm, er—” I interrupted him: “To be dumped the day before Valentine’s Day from a three-and-a-half-year relationship? Not great, to be honest, but I am very much an adherent of Dr Seuss, who said: ‘Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.’”
In my case, there were plenty of smiles along the way. 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. I sat by James’s side as we met the president of Colombia in Belfast, who was over on a state visit. I advised the prime minister what to say in interviews about Brexit and the Irish border, and discussed the issue with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, at the famous glass table in his office in Brussels. I flew in an RAF plane used by members of the royal family with a cabinet minister to get to international peace talks. I had meetings – sometimes several times a week – in 10 Downing Street, occasionally with the prime minister present.
I lived an amazing, crazy, draining, fascinating life doing the best job in the world, which I had been lucky enough to be asked to do – quite literally, helping to run the country.
As you might imagine, there were myriad stories along the way. Some will never be told, because they cannot be. But the ones I can tell you within the law and without breaking the Official Secrets Act will hopefully make this list a little like my time as a Spad: sometimes mad, sometimes exasperating, but never, ever, dull.