By Peter Hoskin
Follow Peter on Twitter
My apologies to Paul for copying, with two extra words, the headline from his earlier post. It's just that another census was released today — the quarterly (or quarterly-ish) headcount of the government's Special Advisers — and it too highlights a rising population. The number of SpAds has increased from 66 in the first of these lists, from June 2010, to 72 last July, to 79 now. They must be breeding.
But, like the headline says, this isn't in itself a bad thing. There was a time once, in the Coalition Agreement, when David Cameron and Nick Clegg talked in terms of population control for special advisers; but this was misguided. The grim excesses of the Gordon Brown years — the smears and the briefings — were not necessarily an argument against SpAds themselves, but against bad SpAds.
Good SpAds can make a huge difference when it comes to implementing policy. They can be the experts who know the details that their minister doesn't, and who fight the battles with the civil service that (for various reasons, mostly time constraints) their minister can't. It wasn't without reason that Michael Gove described his two SpAds as ‘the real heroes of reform,’ when he picked up his award for Minister of the Year at last year's Spectator Parliamentarian awards (50 minutes into this video). Ministers need good SpAds; in a sense, more than good SpAds need ministers.
So the debate ought to be more about quality than quanitity — but it's still encouraging that the government appears to be shedding its artificial aversion to SpAds. That said, some ministers appear to be shedding it more quickly than others. The number of special advisers attached to Nick Clegg has risen from four in July 2010 to 14 now, and all because the Deputy Prime Minister felt under-represented across Whitehall. Now how's that for population growth?