Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.
It is often remarked by commentators that the United Kingdom is following the lead of the United States towards a culture war on values. As I have written previously, I think this is overblown. However, one trend that we are certainly aping in this country is that of the public-facing political aide; where senior advisers to politicians comment on behalf of their boss in the media and play a role in shaping on-the-record debate. A variation of this theme is the ‘briefing out’ of what an adviser is reputed to believe or have said – which has developed over several years and predates the current Prime Minister.
There are superficial attractions to this approach. As a former special adviser in Downing Street, I remember the occasional frustration of watching elected politicians carry a message badly. There is the fact that many stories on process are unworthy for politicians to comment on – the public tune out and it detracts from a retail message – but yet a vacuum from central government is unhelpful too. And there is a convincing argument that a pantomime villain special adviser can act as a lightning rod for opprobrium that would otherwise be directed at the principal.
In the long-term though, I believe this development will do more harm than good. I will refrain from comments about personality and focus instead on structural points.
First, unlike the United States, we do not have a clean-cut separation of powers between the executive and the legislative. The Prime Minister is by convention first among equals in the largest parliamentary party. On most areas of policy, he or she cannot rule alone by executive order and decree. He relies on elected colleagues to support his agenda and give it legislative weight. Recent attempts to circumvent this process have been blocked by the Supreme Court.
Number 10’s influence is best exercised as a convening power behind the scenes rather than from the pulpit on the airwaves. This is especially true in the current dynamic of a deadlocked parliament on an unprecedented constitutional issue. Political advisers who rise above the parapet with attributable views of their own about the governing process risk accentuating the gap between the Prime Minister and the MPs he needs to persuade. Unless the Prime Minister is returned with an overwhelming majority after the next general election, this tension could well continue as the terms of our future relationship with the EU are negotiated.
Second, beyond the immediate Brexit debate and looking over a greater number of years, I fear this trend will end up lessening the quality of elected representatives further. Senior special advisers are already paid more than a backbench MP and can have a great deal of influence on policy behind the scenes. If you remove another division between the job of politician and political adviser – the licence to communicate your views and engage with the electorate in the public sphere – then it is understandable why those with the greatest talent will opt for the latter. This would not be a positive development in the long-run for a parliamentary democracy.
Third, I suspect there will also be implications for the quality and impartiality of the civil service. The relationship between special advisers and civil servants has always been a complicated one, premised around a long-standing competition for primacy. If special advisers become active and recognisable participants in political debate themselves then that question becomes increasingly settled in favour of the special adviser.
You can make a legitimate argument that there are plenty of deadwood civil servants knocking around Whitehall, and that political staffers have been equally poor at setting strategic direction in recent years. But we should look to avoid a situation where talented civil servants feel unable to give impartial advice directly to a minister without clearing it through a special adviser first. Recent examples from history suggests that this does not lead to good results.
Fourth, I am not sure that a public role for advisers is healthy for the balance between policy and process in media coverage. It is a truism much invoked over the years that the Westminster lobby are obsessed by process and that it is difficult to get them to cover the issues advanced by the political parties. The public presence of those involved in said process only encourages such behaviour.
Consider for example – according to the Factiva database – that the Prime Minister’s senior adviser’s name has featured over 2,500 times over the last three months in articles in UK national titles. The phrase “knife crime” meanwhile has featured about 1,000 times; “HS2” about 800 times. There are limitations to this crude quantitative exercise but the point is hopefully clear.
Fifth, Her Majesty’s Government runs the risk of creating confused signals to external players whether they be markets, investors or overseas governments. If the Prime Minister states his view on a subject is ‘X’ and then a political adviser with close proximity uses different emphasis around the point – then you are going to get a confusing picture. Observers will probe more deeply into the uneasy question of who the primary decision maker is and who speaks with greater authority. This has not been a purely hypothetical matter in recent weeks and there are implications for the United Kingdom’s reputation for predictability and certainty.
The old saying goes that all political careers end in failure eventually. So it is perhaps unsurprising that special advisers who develop a public profile have tended to follow a similar course. That is a matter for the individuals concerned. However, the longer-term consequences for parliamentary democracy are a matter for all of us. Robert Massie once observed that there would have been no Lenin without Rasputin. Given that our political heritage is a lot more enviable than that of Tsarist Russia, we should try to avoid repeating history’s mistakes.