William Hague yesterday delivered in the Daily Telegraph a devastating verdict on Amber Rudd’s closest advisers:
“The first thing I would do if I were Sajid Javid, the new Home Secretary, is make sure I have the people around me to help get an iron grip on the Home Office. It is essential in any big job in government to have special advisers, private secretaries and a permanent secretary of the whole department who spot problems and detect a crisis in the making even when their boss is busy with daily events. Whatever Amber Rudd did, she does not appear to have been well served by such people.”
It is no part of the purpose of this article to attribute blame to individual advisers or officials. The buck stops with ministers. They carry the ultimate responsibility, and must do if our system is to command confidence. Democracy requires scapegoats.
But there is undoubtedly a general problem with the quality of the special advisers, or spads, employed by ministers, or available to be employed. “Most Government SpAds are no good,” as one close observer put it to me on Monday.
Or as a political editor with many years’ experience told ConservativeHome yesterday:
“I think the standard probably has declined. There is a decline in policy and in deep knowledge. Many of them don’t know what they’re for.”
There are exceptions to this rule, including some who by long service have built up an authoritative level of knowledge. But even Downing Street recognises there is a general problem with many of the 88 SpAds (the official number given in December 2017) employed across government.
As Matt Chorley recently reported for The Times Red Box, Number Ten is now setting up a training programme, intended to “professionalise the spad operation”, and instigated by Nikki da Costa, who herself joined as a spad last autumn, with the title of director of legislation, having previously worked in public relations.
Among the subjects to be covered are working with Number Ten; working with the Treasury and understanding the Budget; making and implementing policy; working with other departments; building parliamentary support; getting your legislation into parliament; and working with the press.
Much of this would until recently have been learned by working in the Conservative Research Department, which from its foundation soon after the heavy election defeat of 1929 functioned as an autonomous body within the party, devoted under Neville Chamberlain’s leadership during the 1930s to the development of a policy programme which would meet the demands of a vastly increased electorate, and enable the party to compete with and defeat Labour.
After the Second World War, CRD was refounded under the leadership of Rab Butler, whose brilliant recruits included Reggie Maudling, Iain Macleod and Enoch Powell. They had to work extremely hard, and very quickly, producing policy briefs for the new Opposition front bench, who had grown accustomed, during Churchill’s wartime coalition, to getting that sort of material from the far more numerous civil service. CRD was also set to work in 1949 on the full policy review which the following year resulted in an election manifesto that helped put the Conservatives back in contention with Labour.
Gifts of intellect are needed to render under time pressure a mass of disparate material into a short, coherent and accurate summary. To do this well, you must have a serious interest in policy for its own sake, and not just in policy as something to be placed at the service of presentation, in order to demonstrate to the wider public how virtuous you are.
But this unglamorous exercise also demands, and helps to develop, political judgment, in order to see the strongest way to state Conservative policy, while also understanding the Labour position, and perceiving what weak points each side will try to prise open in the other’s case.
There could be no better preparation for being a special adviser, one of whose tasks is to detect and try to avert the problems into which a particular policy may run. Some people have a flair for that kind of intelligent anticipation, but even they get better with practice, as they begin to gain a detailed knowledge of various fields of policy, grow acquainted with the various players and develop an understanding of how Parliament and Government, Whitehall, the political parties and the media interact.
For a short period in the 1980s, before going on the streets of journalism, I worked in the CRD. There was a determination to make politics amusing, which encompassed bohemian and indeed outrageous behaviour. But there was also a feeling of esprit de corps, the development of long-lasting political friendships, and a commitment to producing written work of a very high standard, so that the party knew exactly what its position was on any given policy question, and exactly what the Opposition had to say about it.
Part of the charm of working there was that one was thrown at a young age into contact with senior figures, whom one might brief before they went on programmes such as Question Time, then in its first and greatest incarnation under Robin Day.
At the age of 21, David Cameron, who joined CRD in September 1988, found himself briefing Trade, Industry and Energy Ministers, as well as the MPs who attended the specialist backbench committees covering those subjects. He learned how to write speeches for the Party Chairman, Chris Patten, and had his first encounter with the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher:
“Walking around at an office party, she stopped in front of me and asked: ‘What are the trade figures? Have you seen the trade figures today?’ I had not. She had. I never made the same mistake again.”
If you wanted to go far, or indeed to rise to any higher position, you had to show you knew your stuff. Robin Harris, Director of the CRD from 1985-89, was a stern taskmaster, who would not tolerate intellectual sloppiness. Lord Lexden, by formation an academic historian, who for many years helped run the Department and train future special advisers and indeed Cabinet ministers, this week told ConHome:
“Special advisers ought to come principally, though not entirely, from the party’s established training school (90 years old next year), not from slick PR companies or from the little staffs that all MPs now seem to have around them. There is boring preparatory work—learning how to draft, mastering details of policy and political life, grasping that amorphous thing, the Conservative tradition—that needs to be undertaken by carefully selected apprentices if a Conservative Government is to have really good special advisers at its disposal. Large salaries are now paid to people who lack such essential training—and the old CRD ways are no more. In the 1990s we had a rule—sometimes breached—that no Secretary of State should appoint a special adviser without the sanction of the CRD Director. G. Osborne was appointed to the lunatic Hogg despite A .Lansley’s strong opposition (Osborne had only been in the Research Department a short time), but in that case natural talent meant that he learnt all the Department had to offer swiftly. E. Llewellyn at Number 10 used to bewail the absence of a new CRD generation on whom the government could draw, but nothing was done to recreate the conditions that would produce it.”
During the long years of Tony Blair’s supremacy, rubbed in from 1997 by his party’s three election victories in a row, the Conservatives, struggling under a succession of leaders to make any kind of recovery, instead absorbed from New Labour the disastrous lesson that only spin really mattered.
Employing intelligent young desk officers to study policy for its own sake appeared in this new world where presentation was all to be a waste of time and money. The Conservative Research Department, which even when brought under the same roof as Conservative Central Office had managed to maintain an independent existence, was subsumed into Conservative Campaign Headquarters, or CCHQ, as Central Office became known.
Under Cameron’s leadership, a generation of CRD-trained professionals, including himself, Osborne, Llewellyn and Letwin, ran the show, and were able to maintain for five years a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Yet the institution which had given them their early training in politics was allowed to wither.
The public has wearied of politicians who appear to have done only politics, and it is now far more difficult for such people to find parliamentary seats, which is another reason why fewer high-calibre candidates are putting themselves forwards to become special advisers.
But although it is desirable for politicians to possess experience of other areas of life, when the alternative to professionalism turns out to be shambolic lack of professionalism, not much has been gained.
It seems unlikely the present Prime Minister will wish to devote any of her energy to recreating some kind of CRD. But it also seems probable that some future Conservative leader will soon realise it is folly for a great party to possess no capacity of its own for thinking seriously about policy, while at the same time training a new generation of advisers and future ministers.