Richard Chew was a special adviser to David Cameron and Theresa May between 2015 and 2019.
An occasional criticism of British political advisers is that they swan around pretending to be in The West Wing. Any pretensions I might have had to this were ended on my first day in Downing Street. In one episode of the US TV hit, a character faces a moral dilemma after finding out that in any emergency he will be evacuated with the President, while his closest colleagues will be left behind. In the security briefing that followed my appointment as a special adviser to David Cameron, it was made abruptly clear to me that in any emergency situation I get left behind.
As well as putting a new staff member firmly in his place, this episode stood out for being pretty much the only formal induction process when I started working for the Government. My experience matches that of most of my colleagues: you get a Blackberry, an email address, a password and told to crack on. I was fortunate to benefit from the support and mentoring of outstanding colleagues, both in government and at CCHQ. Yet starting to work for the Government is a blizzard of jargon, acronyms and bureaucracy. I spent the first few months struggling to get to grips with this, grateful at least that I was in Number 10, where there are plenty of political colleagues to turn for advice, rather than in a department which typically has only two or three special advisers.
Faced with challenges on all sides, improving the support given to special advisers is one of the easiest things the Party could do to boost its survival chances. Change should happen in a number of areas, starting with better support when people start in government. Recruitment should be made more systematic, with a greater focus on a pipeline of future SpAds and more support for incoming Secretaries of State to hire the right people. Specific training should be provided, given the wide range of skills and expertise advisers need. The whole system of pay and progression needs fundamental reform. Turnover is naturally high, but there should be more use of the expertise of former SpAds.
Some readers with an already low opinion of special advisers may not find these shortfalls in the system particularly surprising, or even worth fixing. I would naturally disagree. Special advisers are for the most part extremely talented and politically committed, and play a crucial role in the success of the Conservative Party. Vastly outnumbered in government by civil servants, they work every day (and many nights) to bend the government machinery in a Conservative direction: trying to deliver election promises, avoiding political pitfalls, and developing a strategic platform and policy programme to keep Labour out of power. The better special advisers can do their job, the better the Party as a whole can do.
Leadership candidates may find criticising special advisers an easy clap line in MP hustings. But effective special advisers will make their job easier – as the candidates, who have been Secretaries of State, know full well. The next Prime Minister will face profound challenges. Overcoming them needs every part of the Party – elected, voluntary and professional – operating at their peak. Improving the support available to special advisers is low-hanging fruit to achieve this, and the new Prime Minister would reap the benefits.
The issues I have described are well known, and the solutions are fairly straightforward. Any decent size business gives its employees more support than special advisers currently receive. Several of my former colleagues put in a lot of time and work – on top of their main roles – to improve the situation, and the picture has improved thanks to their efforts.
However, the next Prime Minister has the opportunity to go further. He will soon appoint people to be in charge of policy, communications, strategy and other key functions. He should appoint someone with specific responsibility for managing the professional political team across government. This would supply real impetus for the change that is needed. It would help manage a transition where large numbers of SpAds will likely leave, join or change roles. It would build into the system a focus on professionalisation that outlives whoever first fills that post.
Getting this right is especially important given the likelihood of an early general election, when ministers lose the support of the civil service. At this point they – and the rest of the Party – rely even more on professional staff to develop the policies and message we will take to the country on the doorsteps and the airwaves. Continued Conservative government depends on getting that right.
‘Professional politician’ often gets thrown round as a term of abuse. Yet British politics is far from a profession, in the sense of a job requiring any formal training or expertise. Our Party would benefit from becoming more truly professional.