Why the Lobbyists are Taking Over Whitehall

Another administration, another set of Spads – but is there a trend in favour of lobbyists taking on senior advisory positions?

Treasury 2 -- Wikimedia Commons

It was another moment of high drama which, in an era apparently dedicated to high drama, runs the risk of being forgotten: this was the unceremonious firing last August of Sonia Khan, a special adviser to Sajid Javid. Khan was summoned to a meeting with Dominic Cummings – a cross between Voldemort and Sun Tzu, if you believe the media – which ended in her being escorted by armed police out of the door.

It subsequently emerged that the chancellor hadn’t been informed of the dismissal. This scene, shocking as it was, is perhaps even better in the reimagining by Marina Hyde in The Guardian: “Did the Saj watch manfully through the net curtains of No 11?” she wondered.

Whether he did or not, there was a sense in which Khan wasn’t escorted out of the door, but out of the revolving door. “Every exit is an entry somewhere else” as Tom Stoppard once put it – and that’s especially true of Westminster, the brightest stage we have, and one with an almost unlimited cast of extras.

So how does this work? You might say there are three types of Spad. There’s the journalist – whisky-soaked and with broken capillaries on their face thanks to too many evenings in the Red Lion. Then we have the wannabe MP (or PM): David Cameron-like in their slickness, observing what power looks like in order to acquire it later on. And then there’s the lobbyist: corporate in a different way, who knows there’s nothing better for the CV, and ultimately for the bank balance, than a spell in government. Increasingly there are signs that it’s this group who are now dominating Whitehall.

It used to be presumptive MPs who would work their way through Westminster, until they were at the heart of our politics: they had moved from the edge of frame to its centre – think Cameron at Norman Lamont’s shoulder during Black Wednesday. Cameron, George Osborne (special adviser to Douglas Hogg), Ed Miliband (advising Gordon Brown in the Treasury) and Ed Balls (also advising Brown) were all Spads before entering the Commons. It was a kind of Spadocracy, where a spell in the shadows provided a possible route toward the upper echelons of government.

Ten members of Cameron’s first administration had been advisers. But it hasn’t just been a route for Tories. Many prominent Labour figures have been former Spads, including Jonathan Ashworth (to Paul Boateng, Des Browne and Stephen Timms) and former MP Owen Smith (to Paul Murphy, both at Wales and Northern Ireland). Meanwhile Liz Kendall, who worked for a spell as an adviser to Harriet Harman, went on to advise Patricia Hewitt at the Department of Trade and Industry before going on to represent Hewitt’s seat of Leicester West, which she retained in the 2019 election.The December result saw some Spads become MPs – most notably Danny Kruger and James Wild, now representing Devizes and North West Norfolk respectively, and both close confidantes of Boris Johnson.

Even so, we’re still a long way away from the age of the Cameroonian Spad. In 2020, it’s difficult to think of a major political figure, who has been a former Spad and of those currently attending cabinet, just one was a special adviser and three were advisers in opposition. Of the Cameron era, just a handful of Spads – including Neil O’Brien and Oliver Dowden – have gone on to become MPs.

So what happened? Well, the journalist Spads still exist – and, of course, we have a writer as PM. One always wonders how journalistic integrity can operate alongside obviously close friendships with advisers. When Boris Johnson entered No 10, he brought in journalists, such as Ross Kempsell, to work at his policy unit; Kempsell had even interviewed Johnson for TalkRadio weeks before his appointment.

But why wouldn’t a minister want a former journalist as a Spad? A good journalist will know how to handle the media. On the other side of the revolving door, why wouldn’t an editor want a former adviser on their staff? Their contact books and policy knowledge are assets. And it would be foolish to deny that the Evening Standard doesn’t benefit from having a former chancellor of the exchequer as its editor – it’s like having John McEnroe in the commentary box at Wimbledon.

And so to the lobbyist Spad. Examples abound – and quite a few of them seem to involve Cicero Group. Nikki da Costa, former director of parliamentary affairs, left her role under Theresa May to join lobby firm Cicero, but sometimes the revolving door revolves quickly: she returned to government to become Boris Johnson’s director of legislative affairs. Sometimes, as you’re going through the revolving door, it’s even possible to wave to someone heading in the other direction. Joey Jones, formerly of Sky News – and briefly Theresa May’s spokesperson – has also recently joined the firm.

Cicero chairman Iain Anderson (whose book F**k Business is reviewed on page 134) agrees the lobbyist Spad is becoming more common. “It is essentially something around personality and approach,” he says. “Many Spads are just better as advisers than on the political stage. They are deep thinkers, rather than messengers.” He adds that the type of person who becomes a Spad has changed since the days of the wannabe MPs. Nowadays, he says, Spads are “much more policy heavyweight”.So why are firms such as Cicero or Portland interested in former advisers? A former policy adviser under David Cameron gives this simple explanation: “On the whole, the contacts will expire quite quickly, so it’s probably a mix of the skills gained in the job and the kind of people that do the job.” In other words, the sort of person who becomes an effective adviser is the sort of person with a knack for public affairs. Anderson agrees. “It’s really about skills and insight – understanding how government works and how decisions get made. The ‘who you know’ idea just doesn’t stand the test of a constantly changing government environment.”

Even so, Nick Clegg provides a useful example of how connections can be useful. His appointment as global affairs chief at Facebook was met with some derision: coffee was spat out in privacy-conscious Lib Dem households across the country. But it made perfect sense. The internet giant faced regulatory threats in Brussels., and Clegg had spent years as a Eurocrat. So what next? Philip Hammond as chair of HSBC? Might Chuka Umunna do a David Miliband and take on an international NGO role? Or might the unseated former leader of the Liberal Democrats Jo Swinson follow Clegg into a trendy entrepeneurial role? All things are possible.

So really, it’s not such a murky world. Politics, journalism and business all require the same things: networks, institutional knowledge and an ability to communicate and understand complex ideas. But where is Sonia Khan now? As we went to press, nobody was quite sure. The truth is, she can take her pick of all three.

16th January 2020