In the perfect world that doesn’t exist, new Ministers would enter their new departments, explain the Government’s priorities to Permanent Secretaries and – bingo! – the civil service would swing flawlessly into action.
In the real one in which we live, it’s not as simple as that. This is partly because Sir Humphrey has a mind of his own, but also because of the way we live now. The EU, Minister. The Courts, Minister. Judicial Review, Minister. These bundle together in a modern equivalent to Cobbett’s The Thing.
Even the most efficient of Ministers is thus reliant on a small team of Special Advisers to get anything much done. Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa May: without their SpAds, the reforms that they have made would have been carried out less well, or not at all.
After last autumn’s Conservative Conference, as today’s election loomed into view, I asked myself: what’s the best case for voting Tory next May? I found that my answer had very little to do with the long-term economic plan or hard-working people and all the rest of it.
Each of us will have his own reason for supporting who he does today, but my main one is that serious, committed, public-spirited Ministers such Gove and Duncan Smith and May and Francis Maude and Chris Grayling and Jeremy Hunt have delivered public service reform for the better.
Grown-Up Government, I call it. But how little of it would have happened without their teams of SpAds. This is the last of ConservativeHome’s Reasons to be Tory series, and there are plenty of good ones: the jobs miracle, the council tax freeze, the Northern Powerhouse, annuities reform…
But I want on polling day to honour the people who have made so much of it possible, who aren’t always thanked, but whose work has been indispensable. What follows isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but note the overlap between names given and eforms mentioned.
- Dominic Cummings and Henry de Zoete at Education. Cummings is a hairy man and de Zoete a smooth man, to borrow a phrase from the Bible. Gove needed both to get his exam reforms, free schools and academies programme up and running.
- Philippa Stroud at Work at Pensions. Stroud missed out on the Commons last time round. If she wanted maximum influence on public policy, this was a lucky stroke – since she has had a real impact advising Duncan Smith on welfare reform at Work and Pensions.
- Nick Timothy, Stephen Parkinson and Fiona Cunningham at the Home Office. All three of them went into the Department willing to take a bullet for their boss. And all three of them duly have. Without their help, policing and security policy would be less effective.
- Simone Finn and Henry Newman at the Cabinet Office. There must be a temptation to go native at the Cabinet Office, which is so near to the heart of the system, and assume that all in government works for the best. It is one that both have resisted.
- Rupert Harrison and Neil O’Brien at the Treasury. Harrison is a force behind the economic strategy, O’Brien one behind the Northern Powerhouse. George Osborne picked a very strong team.
- And finally…Sheridan Westlake at CLG. Eric Pickles has been known to say that it’s been a pleasure working for Westlake. This is very nearly true. As Hayden said of Handel, on hearing the Hallelujah Chorus: “He is the master of us all.”
I apologise to other SpAds not mentioned in these despatches. You know who you are. It’s a pity more people don’t – but, then again, that’s the way it must be.