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Knives out

Remember when, during the fag-end months of his premiership, Gordon Brown threatened to sack any special advisers caught making personal attacks on others? This was after the whole Damian McBride affair, so the then Prime Minister probably had to say something – but, still, what hideous, hilarious irony. The leader of a Thuggee cult, Westminster branch, promising to take on the Thugs? Ahahahahahahaha.

David Cameron made a similar promise when he became Prime Minister, except this time it was less laughable. Not only was Cameron a cleaner politician than his predecessor, but partnership with the Lib Dems had brought the matter of intra-Government relations into starker relief. When he told a collection of Tory and Lib Dem special advisers that briefing against individuals was a sackable offence, he was facing up to a very possible problem. These were two groups of people who had, not long before, been knocking teeth out of each other. Properly stable government would require that they stopped.

After the past couple of weeks, and the resignation of Theresa May’s adviser Fiona Cunningham, it’s tempting to ask: how’s all that working out? In many respects, the May versus Gove row was atypical: it was Tory-on-Tory infighting, and someone took the fall. But in others, it was all too typical: the attacks on individuals have never really gone away.

If you want some more examples, then I’d urge you to look at the political pages of practically any paper on practically any day. But, to make a not entirely random selection, how about this article on Nick Clegg by Iain Martin? It contains several shades of personal attack by nameless advisers and ministers. One “Tory adviser” revels in an uncomfortable situation for Clegg: “It was tremendous… Clegg appointed him and he made Clegg look like a pillock.” Another suggests that Clegg’s own advisers may have been up to worse, briefing against Liz Truss and her childcare reforms: “He authorised his SpAd team to denounce one of his own ministerial colleagues. That is problematic.”

As a political spectator – albeit a squeamish one who’d prefer that Westminster was more like Disneyland, and no-one said anything nasty about anyone – I lap this stuff up. Iain’s writing, insights and contacts are among the best in town, and it’s his job to deploy them all in service of his readers. You could even say that there’s something rambunctiously democratic about knowing who loathes whom and why.

But as a Prime Minister – God forbid! – I’d hate it. These anonymous quotes and faceless briefings pick away at the delicate fabric of Government. They probably also don’t do much for people’s opinions of politics. I mean, shouldn’t all these advisers be up to something better?

So why doesn’t Cameron just prevent the personal attacks? Why doesn’t he just sack the culprits as promised? Part of it, I’m sure, is will. I’ve always found it arresting, the few occasions when a special adviser has said something unkind about the Prime Minister to me and then hastily followed it with “…but don’t print that, that’s briefing against the Prime Minister.” There seems to be a sense that striking out against No.10 would provoke the full force of the Cabinet Secretary and his commissars, whereas that wouldn’t happen in the case of other ministers. The will, generally speaking, just isn’t there.

In fairness to No.10, Jeremy Heywood does actually adjudicate over more internal spats than you hear about. And they’re not always clear-cut cases in the first place. Looking again at those passages from Iain Martin’s article, I hope the accusation that Liz Truss was briefed against by the Deputy Prime Minister’s office, and with the Deputy Prime Minister’s say-so, was investigated – that’s pretty serious. But should an adviser face the sack for laughingly suggesting that Clegg, in one particular instance, looked like a pillock? With all the trouble it would take to root them out? Richard M. Nixon probably would have had no trouble identifying the culprit. But Nixon’s methods were, one might say, peculiar.

A lot of this has to do with uncertainty around the role of the special adviser. Their written Code of Conduct does offer some clarity: Fiona Cunningham probably resigned in knowledge of its directive that “any special adviser ever found to be disseminating inappropriate material will automatically be dismissed by their appointing Minister.” But this document also adds to the murk: one of the tasks it permits special advisers to do is “devilling” on behalf of their minister. Devilling? As the former adviser Nick Hillman said in a recent pamphlet – which I reviewed for ConHome – “even after being a special adviser, I still haven’t the foggiest what ‘devilling’ is”.

Within these foggy parameters, a special adviser can do a lot for their minister that the minister isn’t specifically aware of. Depending on the adviser, some of this work may be completely innocent: sifting through spreadsheets and voluminous reports. But some of it may be rather more knavish: trying to take out any and all political opponents, even within their own party. Why do they risk it? Again, it depends. For some, it may be brutal ambition, knowing that their prospects rise with their minister’s. For others, it may be an ideological struggle to see the best policies come out on top. But in most cases, I’ve little doubt, it comes from a form a devotion. Advisers and ministers build close and symbiotic relationships with each other. They act out of mutual regard.

This is part of the reason why ending the personal attacks and negative briefings, for all time, would be so difficult. But Downing St isn’t without some levers to pull. There are the recommendations made in that Hillman pamphlet, for instance. Whilst Nicholas Jones – who has written many fine words on this subject – reckons that all ministerial aides should only speak to the media on an “on the record” basis.

But another change would be for ministers to set a good example. When even the excellent and thoroughly polite Michael Gove is criticising civil servants by name in the papers, what are special advisers to think? What about when David Laws takes his own swipes at Gove, or when Vince Cable denounces Tory policies as “ugly”? Coalition politics is descending into the adversarialism that Cameron originally wanted to avoid. Perhaps that was always going to be the problem.

19 comments for: Personal attacks ought to stop, but the nature of Westminster means that they won’t

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