Special Advisers - History and Comment

Governments have pretty well always recruited a small number of temporary advisers or experts to supplement the support available from the permanent (and in recent years) apolitical civil service. At least some of these would today be called ‘Tsars’ – see further below.

Various commentators have suggested (perhaps sometimes tongue in cheek) that these historical figures were the Spads of their day:

Roy Hattersley, in his biography of David Lloyd George, indeed argues that it was DLG who invented special advisers when he brought a number of businessmen into government during the First World war.

But it was Harold Wilson, back in 1964, who began to appoint political supporters in significant numbers.  He saw them as "the guardian of the manifesto" against a civil service that the incoming Labour government saw as small 'c' conservative. 

All Ministerial departments nowadays have one or more Special Advisers (often abbreviated to "Spads") who are personal appointees of the Secretary of State, but employed as temporary civil servants. Their main role is to give political, presentational and policy advice to Ministers, help write political speeches and articles, and if necessary add a political dimension to speeches etc. drafted by officials. They work closely with Private Offices and Press Offices and gave advice in parallel with line divisions.

Some Spads have been exceptionally effective.  Simon Stephens was a Spad working to the Health Secretary in Tony Blair's government and then became Mr Blair's health adviser.  As of 2020, he was in charge of the whole NHS under a Conservative government. Such Spads bring intellectual as well as political challenge, as well as their own insight, into government policy-making, and are an essential if rather special part of the civil service

The activity and behaviour of Special Advisers inevitably attracts much attention, much of it critical and much of it unfair (see separate notes on the Jo Moore - Martin Sixsmith affair and Steve Hilton & Dominic Cummings.). But the occasional very rotten apples can poison relations between minister and civil service, antagonise the media, create mayhem in government, and land their Ministers in deep trouble. Luckily, they were usually quickly shown the door, if only to save their principals' skins:

In short, there was much truth in Nick Hillman's comment that special advisers are like poisoners: either famous or good at their job.

Developments since 2003

Spads' role has since 2003 been developed in essentially minor ways, as follows:-

First, the Government proposed, in 2003, that Special Advisers should be able to convey Ministerial "instructions" to civil servants, thus by-passing both the civil service hierarchy and Ministers' Private Offices. The Government said that it "does not believe that this represents line management". However, it did for the first time threaten to place Special Advisers between Ministers and civil servants, a role previously held exclusively by private secretaries and line managers. As there is no legal limit to the number of Special Advisers, this created understandable concern that this was the thin end of a wedge which would eventually create a sizable US-style political (but unelected) class at the highest level within the Government machine. The proposal therefore caused quite a fuss so it was toned down so that Special Advisers were only allowed, on their own account, to "commission work from civil servants". But see the 2015 development, below.

Then, in 2005, a revised Code of Conduct said that Special Advisers could "request officials to prepare and provide information and data, including internal analyses and papers", which amounts to pretty much the same thing. The new Code also allowed Special Advisers to "give assistance [to Ministers] on any aspect of departmental business" rather than just provide advice. This is a subtle change of wording, and in principle it allowed Special Advisers rather more power, although it probably made very little difference in practice. The key thing is that it remained (and remains) the case that Special Advisers may not convey Ministerial instructions.

There was one important - though eventually temporary - exception to the position described above. The Civil Service (Amendment) Order in Council 1997, passed shortly after New Labour came into power, provided that up to three Special Advisers (in practice in No.10) could exercise management control over permanent civil servants. However, at first two and then only one appointee was authorised to exercise such power, and the Order was revoked when Gordon Brown became Prime Minister in June 2007.

The incoming Coalition Government published a revised Special Advisers Code of Conduct in 2010 - but it was very similar to that published by the previous government (Special Advisers Code of Conduct 2009). This continues to supplement the Civil Service Code and the relevant Departmental Staff Handbooks, which continue to apply with exceptions for the rules relating to political impartiality and objectivity.

The Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 defined 'Special Adviser' in statute for the first time, required their numbers etc. to be reported annually, provided for the publication of the Special Advisers Code and provided that they may not authorise expenditure, nor exercise management or other power. They did, however, continue to be free to commission work from civil servants on behalf of their Minister.

The 2010-15 Coalition Government planned to introduce Extended Ministerial Offices – Traditional Ministers’ Private Offices augmented by a number of external advisers whose status would be similar to that of Special Adviser. But none had been created before the 2015 general election. For more information, see the Civil Service Reform section of this website.

Then, following the 2015 election, the Conservative Government amended the Special Advisers Code so as to allow SpAds to 'convey to officials Ministers’ views, instructions and priorities'. The insertion of the word 'instructions' - entirely without prior consultation - thus re-asserted the position that Labour Ministers had tried (but failed) to achieve in 2003. In response to subsequent questioning, Ministers argued that the change merely recognised what was happening anyway. The problem, of course, is that an individual Special Adviser may:

This may not happen very often, but it could be highly damaging (including to the Minister) when it does happen. Officials do of course remain free to challenge the 'instruction' if they feel it necessary, but this would inevitably sour relations between officials and SpAds, whoever is proved right.

A revised Code of Conduct was published in late 2016 following Theresa May's appointment as Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson's arrival as Prime Minister saw also the arrival of Dominic Cummings as a sort of super-Spad, who immediately became line manager of all the departmental Spads. It was also decided that the Treasury Spads would in future be managed alongside, and so form a single team with, the No.10 Spads.  Chancellor Sajid Javid resigned in protest.

Spad David Frost's appointment as National Security Adviser, as well lead Brexit negotiator, was equally astonishing.  He also became Lord Frost.

There was much concern, in late 2020, that a weak Prime Minister and an even weaker Cabinet were allowing government policy to be dictated by a group of Special Advisers in Downing Street.  Chris Grey commented as follows, following the Northern Ireland Secretary's statement that the Government would be willing to break international law:

One indicator of how that administration operates came with the report that Brandon Lewis’s statement was effectively dictated to him by a Downing Street advisor “who gave [him] the words to say”. The advisor, Oliver Lewis (no relation, I assume), is one of several central figures from the Vote Leave campaign – he was its Research Director – who, led by Dominic Cummings, are now installed special advisers and seem to have been allowed by Johnson to become the de facto government. Many of them are very young, have little or no experience of government and, it’s perhaps fair to say, a greater degree of confidence in their own abilities than a more objective analysis would warrant.

The report stresses that Boris Johnson was barely involved, but perhaps even more shocking is the idea that a member of the Cabinet should, apparently, be taking orders of this sort from an advisor. But it is a measure of the extent to which this under-achieving but over-empowered cadre are able to wreak havoc, whether through abrasive arrogance or plain incompetence. For Brandon Lewis’s words, spoken at the dispatch box of the House of Commons, will leave a long and damaging mark, regardless of the fate of  [the Internal Market Bill].

Eventually, and almost inevitably, , it all ended in tears with the November 2020 enforced departure of Dominic Cummings and his friend Lee Cain, the political appointee as Head of Downing Street Communications  Rather surprisingly, Lee Cain's successor was James Slack who was already the PM's official spokesman (i.e a civil servant) but would now, still as a civil servant, become Director of Communications.  The political side of No,10s communications operation now fell to Angela Stratton, the PM's newly appointed Press Secretary. More detail about Messrs Cummings and Frost is here.  And it was reported that day-to-day management of Spads was transferred back from No.10 to their appointing ministers.

As an encore, Prime Minister Johnson's Chief of Staff Eddie Lister (Baron Udny-Lister) resigned at the end of 2020, only for him to apologise, some months later, for a "possible conflict of interest" after approving a £187million taxpayer-backed loan to a property developer he was being paid to advise.

Interesting Comment

Speaking in 2002, Andrew Turnbull, then Head of the Civil Service, seemed quite relaxed about civil servants working alongside Special Advisers and other "outsiders":- "We have increasingly a permanent Civil Service but not permanent civil servants". He was reportedly happy that civil servants have lost their "monopoly of policy advice". (Financial Times 1 May 2002).  Others are less sanguine about the possible politicisation of the civil service:- see the Civil Service Reform section of this website.

Permanent Secretary Martin Donnelly, speaking at the Institute for Government in June 2014, noted that in the UK

... political or personal advisers are not a separate layer of administration. In France or other countries with a cabinet system, advice will go to the member of the Minister's cabinet for approval and, if necessary change, before being sent to the Minister. Cabinet officials often have considerable decision-making powers in their own right and many issues never make it to the Minister. One implication of this system is that it requires many fewer junior Ministers.  Another is that inter-Ministerial coordination tends to function on two separate levels – political and official - leading to a higher risk of policy incoherence and conflict over resources.  The Whitehall model ensures that official advice is seen directly by the Minister. Additional comments can be provided by Special Advisers and by the Minister's private office, but they do not change the advice itself. It is this direct access, together with career progression which does not depend on Ministerial patronage, which allows honest and occasionally unwelcome advice to be provided.

Professor Colin Talbot has pointed out that Governments have, for many years, recruited eminent outsiders to lead particularly high profile campaigns or initiatives. These have in recent times often been nicknamed ‘Tsars’. The key difference between Tsars and SpAds is that the former are essentially apolitical appointments, although they will obviously be broadly sympathetic to their appointing minster’s policies. Taken together, however, Professor Talbot points out that SpAds and Tsars represent a significant shift in the way in which the policy-advice function operates in central government. There were in 2015 probably well over 130 SpAds and Tsars engaged in policy-advice roles in British central government. Given that there are about 120 Ministers in British central government, this means there are 250 or so politicians and politically-appointed policy-makers operating within the core executive. Compared to the total Senior Civil Service, the political and politically-appointed elite remains small – 250 or so compared to the 4,000 plus in the whole SCS. But that comparison may be misleading. It might be more appropriate to compare the politically-appointed elite with the very top of the civil service – maybe 200 strong. This group has arguably equivalent status to the political elite – and is slightly smaller in number.

There was some criticism in 2016 when outgoing prime Minister David Cameron forced the Civil Service Chief Executive (Mr Manzoni) to make extra severance payments to Spads who were out of a job following Mr Cameron's defeat in the General Election.  Civil Service World reported as follows:

Manzoni says the outgoing prime minister was worried that the employment of those Spads reappointed after the 2015 general election was "terminating more quickly than they had originally envisaged" ....  But [Mr Manzoni] pushes back against a request to award them the extra severance payments that [he] says would result in the Cabinet Office paying out a total of £282,892 more to the advisers than they are contractually entitled to. Manzoni writes: "I do not believe there is a case for awarding higher sums than those for which the contract allows. Legal advice supports this position, and lawyers have been clear that awarding a further month's salary for Special Advisers in this position would constitute a payment above their contractual entitlement."  Manzoni says that while he recognises the "importance of properly recognising the service of this group of individuals" as well as the "challenging circumstances in which they now find themselves", he points out that the contractual position for their exit packages "is clear", with the contract already "designed to provide some degree of certainty and security for individuals who take on these roles in the knowledge that their appointments may come to an end at short notice".  He then requests a ministerial direction, the formal mechanism by which a departmental chief can raise their concerns before ministers decide whether to ask them to proceed regardless. Ministerial directions are scrutinised by both the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee spending watchdogs. 

But the following day, Case at Number 10 writes back to Manzoni asking him to press ahead with the extra payment for the Spads, saying that Cameron is "mindful of the loyal and dedicated service that has been provided to him over the past six years by his team" and is "conscious that the situation they find themselves in is through no fault of their own". "The termination of their employment has been sudden and unexpected, and he does not wish to exacerbate an already difficult and uncertain time for them by inferring that their long and loyal service is not fully recognised," Case adds.   Case says Cameron has therefore decided that the Cabinet Office should make the additional payments to Spads that were reappointed in 2015, over-riding their contracts. And he says that all Spads "across government" who were reappointed after the election, and who left office this week, should now be awarded the equivalent of six months' salary.

Lord Patten's 2017 criticism of what he saw as the rising influence of spads was maybe more concerning. He said that the role of spad had evolved from provider of necessary support to a Secretary of State into a “counterproductive" class of official “who see it as their job to promote internecine warfare between departments on too many occasions”. Lord Patten said it was hardly surprising the civil service felt “undervalued with the emergence of huge numbers of megaspads” and called for a reduction in numbers on the principle of “one in, two out”.

Former Prime Minister John Major chipped later in 2017 with further trenchant criticism of a proportion of modern special advisers.

Looking back (writing in 2023) it seems to be pretty clear that the influence of Spads has grown quite a lot, and that of the senior reaches of the civil service has declined.  This power without accountability is worrying, especially when Spads formed a protective shield around their minister.   Sir Bernard Jenkin commented that "There are now triangular relationships at the top of many departments, with the Permanent Secretary and the Special Advisers competing for the Secretary of State's trust and attention."  Further information about the declining influence (and performance) of the  senior civil service may be found in the civil service reform section of this website.

More Detail

Ben Yong points out that the average age of Spads has been dropping as their role has become more 'political' and less 'expert'.  The average age on appointment n 2020 is 33-35.  The nature of the job (long hours, uncertain tenure - can be dismissed at will) means that those who become Spads are often young, male, childless and mortgage free - or older and financially secure.  Only 10% go on to become elected politicians but those that do often have supercharged careers (Ed Ball, David Cameron, Ed & David Miliband)

If you need more detail, UCL's Constitution Unit in 2013 published this interesting Research Note: Special Advisers and Public Allegations of Misconduct 1997 - 2013. Their Executive Summary noted that:


Martin Stanley

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