Spotlight - The Special Advisor
With the help of the Institute for Government, KJM Today looks in more detail at Special Advisors and the role they play in governing the United Kingdom.
Left: Number 10 Downing Street - the very heart of the British Government
Special advisers (spads) are political appointees hired to support ministers. They give party political advice and support that would be inappropriate for the civil service to provide.
Spads are a specific kind of political adviser first introduced in 1964. They are appointed as a temporary civil servant. Other political advisers include those working for a political party, or the equivalent to special advisers who work for the opposition (sometimes referred to as pads). 'Policy adviser' is a catch-all term for anyone providing policy advice. Spads can be policy experts, recruited for their expertise in a particular field, or media advisers who present their minister's views and influence how policy is communicated to the public.
Spads serve the minister who appointed them or No.10 directly if they are working there. All special advisers are expected to serve the prime minister and the rest of government beyond their department. However, there has been a marked increase in central oversight of special advisers under the Johnson government. For instance, former chancellor Sajid Javid resigned during the Feburary 2020 reshuffle because he did want to have his spads replaced with spads chosen by the prime minister.
Cabinet ministers hire their special advisers, but the prime minister approves all appointments. Special advisers often have close working relationships with their ministers and some continue advising the same minister as they move between briefs.
There is no set process for recruiting spads. Some will have worked for the political party as an adviser. Others will have been recruited through word of mouth. Special adviser roles are not normally advertised. In January 2020, the prime minister’s then chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, wrote a blogpost asking people to send him a CV if they wanted to work in No.10. This approach is contrary to civil service recruitment practice. It is not known whether any advisers were recruited as a result of his blog.
In February 2020, the Conservative Party also created 'spadjobs.uk', a website soliciting job applications to become a special adviser. The website called for 'talented and experienced communications and digital professionals' to apply to media and digital special adviser roles, setting out job responsibilities and desired qualities of applicants. The then cabinet secretary, Sir Mark Sedwill, later confirmed to a select committee that the website was run and paid for by the Conservative Party and that any advisers identified through the website would be appointed to their roles ‘on a government mechanism’.
There is a process for entering government: special advisers have to abide by a code of conduct, sign a contract and declare any conflicts of interests or any personal history that could detrimentally affect their ability to do the job. They will have to pass security clearance depending on what level of access the job requires.
The latest data release in December 2020 revealed there were 116 special advisers in government – up from 109 in 2019 – the highest amount for at least a decade. Of those, 46 were new to government. 59 spads were new to government in 2019 – the largest influx since the beginning of the coalition government in 2010, when 63 joined.
The prime minister always has the largest amount of special advisers. As of December 2020, Boris Johnson had 51 – up from 44 in 2019 – which includes special advisers recruited to staff the PM’s Policy Unit. The chancellor will usually have more than other ministers: Rishi Sunak has eight special advisers – who work in a joint unit that reports to both the prime minister and the chancellor – while Sajid Javid had six.
Despite the rule that cabinet ministers can only appoint two, some – including the foreign secretary, leader of the Lords and chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster – appoint more. A few ministers of state have on occasion had special advisers, such as those for housing and security. This was not the case in December 2020.
The number of special advisers in government has drastically increased since the 1990s, when John Major’s government recruited between 34 and 38 at any one time. Tony Blair recruited between 70 and 84, and Gordon Brown between 73 and 74.
The Special Adviser Code lists the kinds of activities spads will undertake for ministers:
give assistance on any aspect of departmental business, and give advice (including expert advice as a specialist in a particular field)
undertake long-term policy thinking and contribute to policy planning within the department;
write speeches and undertake related research, including adding party political content to material prepared by permanent civil servants
liaise with the party, briefing party representatives and parliamentarians on issues of government policy
represent the views of their minister to the media (including a party viewpoint), where they have been authorised by the minister to do so
liaise with outside interest groups (including those with a political allegiance).
Dominic Cummings Politics Home
In Number 10, special advisers are the prime minister’s most senior advisers, often including his chief of staff, director of communications or head of the Policy Unit. Others can be very powerful even if they do not have a specific role. Before he left in November 2020, Dominic Cummings was referred to as the prime minister’s ‘chief adviser’ and seems to have had a wide but unspecified brief. Dan Rosenfeld has been the Downing Street chief of staff since 1 January 2021.
Some special advisers can wield more influence within a department than junior ministers. Special advisers are highly trusted by the secretary of state, whereas junior ministers are appointed by the prime minister, and often do not have an established relationship with the secretary of state. Some spads will have close relationships with the media and often brief it on the minister’s behalf – they are assumed to have the ministers’ permission to do so, though it may not always be explicit. In 2014, Fiona Cunningham (later Hill) had to resign as a special adviser to Theresa May in the Home Office after a letter was leaked to the media that was critical of the then education secretary, Michael Gove.
There are restrictions on what a special adviser can and can’t do. Special advisers cannot exercise any statutory powers, manage public funds or ask civil servants to do anything which might breach the Civil Service Code. They are restricted from personnel matters or the management of the civil service.
Special advisers are paid using government funds and cost a total of £9.6 million to employ in the 2019/20 financial year, the same as the previous year. A special adviser’s salary ranged from £40,500 to £145,000 a year in 2020.
Special advisers lose their jobs if their minister is removed at a reshuffle, or at any other time, or if a general election is called. Some may stay in government and work for another minister. Those that leave are usually provided with severance pay. In March 2020, Boris Johnson issued a ministerial direction that the government should defend a legal case brought by former special adviser Sonia Khan, who was fired by Dominic Cummings, regarding her dismissal, rather than seek a settlement.
Special advisers are subject to civil service rules on business appointments which means that they must submit an application to their department about future jobs or appointments.
Some special advisers run to become MPs in parliament – Ed Miliband, Matt Hancock and Oliver Dowden all served as special advisers prior to their election; David Cameron had been a special adviser in the early 1990s. The Special Adviser Code specifically allows spads to run for office while in their position. Some have been given peerages on leaving government – such as Baroness Vadera, former adviser to Gordon Brown, and Baroness Finn, former adviser to Francis Maude.
Special advisers are governed by a code of conduct. They are accountable to their ministers for their conduct.
Controversially, Dominic Cummings was not asked to resign by Boris Johnson after it was revealed in May 2020 that he had made a trip from London to Durham during the lockdown imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Institute for Government