The promise… Special advisers, or spads. They’re not really cherished by anyone apart from the ministers they work for, and sometimes not even then. They have been slandered by the fictional misconduct of Malcolm Tucker and by the all-too-real misconduct of Derek Draper and Damian McBride. They are an embattled species. In fact, when David Cameron first entered government he did so on a promise to “put a limit on the number of special advisers”. All the talk was of brining spads, and their costs, down to size.
…that was kept… The Coalition lived up to this promise at first – and it began releasing spreadsheets to prove it. In between 12th May 2010 and 31 March 2011, it had about 69 spads in its service, at a cost (excluding severance packages) of £4.8 million in today’s money. This was £2.7 million less than what New Labour spent in its final year.
…until it was broken… And then the promise was jettisoned. From the beginning to the end of the last Parliament – as the graph at the top of this post shows – the number of spads rose from 69 to over 100, and their cost increased to £9.2 million. This was in large part due to Nick Clegg, who, so that he could range across Whitehall, insisted on having his own people in Conservative-led departments. The Deputy Prime Minister’s team went from 5 to 20 members.
…and forgotten. But it wasn’t just Clegg. Conservative ministers, including Cameron, began to realise that spads get stuff done. That’s why there was no promise to limit them in 2015 manifesto. And why the numbers for this year, whilst lower than those at the end of the Coalition, are still considerably higher than they were in 2010. They are now 92 special advisers, with 32 working for the Prime Minister and 6 for the Chancellor. Although that’s just the ones listed officially – there are other ways for ministers to bring in help.
The promise that should be. Cameron should never have made that promise, and not just because he was bound to break it. As Nick Hillman argued in a recent pamphlet, the number of special advisers has never actually been significant – particularly when set against the 440,000 people who make up the Civil Service. What matters more, as I’ve said myself, is their quality. Special advisers can be good. Special advisers can be bad. The manifesto pledge should be to employ more of the former.