By Paul Goodman
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New Governments often over-react to the errors of the one before. Tony Blair succeeded a faction-plagued Prime Minister who had originally presided over a "Cabinet of chums". Blair responded post-1997 by crafting a Presidential Premiership, giving political appointments such as Jonathan Powell and Alistair Campbell the authority to instruct civil servants, and instituting what David Cameron in opposition called "Sofa Government" – in other words, making decisions in meetings unminuted by Whitehall. Labour special advisers came to be tainted by an image of impropriety, bullying, spin and cynicism: Charlie Whelan, Jo Moore, Damian McBride (the latter's background, ironically, was in the civil service, not the party).
Cameron responded by pledging to "put a limit on the number of special advisers" in the Conservative manifesto, and briefing that this measure would entail a reduction. This has left Ministers more reliant on the civil service than their predecessors. Civil servants have many talents, but helping to provide political direction for policy – essential for any Government – is not among them. Tim and I have argued since the Government's formation that the squeeze on special adviser numbers was a classic over-reaction to a predecessor administration. It's especially hard to see how a Downing Street policy unit staffed partly by civil servants can give Government strategy the drive and focus it needs.
This would be true in a Government formed by one party. It is all the more so in one made up of two. And it is the junior party in the Coalition that has smashed the cap on special adviser appointments. I'm told that up to eight have been appointed very recently, and that they are being assigned either to support Liberal Democrat Ministers or to shore up Nick Clegg in the Cabinet Office. Conservative Ministers have been complaining for months about the special adviser shortage – non-Cabinet ones in particular. Needless to say, some are seething at the prospect of their Liberal Democrat equivalents getting special help that they are still denied. I gather that further Tory appointments may be made in due course. But until or unless they are, complaints that the Government has got a bit more yellow and less blue look reasonable.