Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The rise of the SPAD

Cameron’s calls for a cut in party political advisors may not materialise.
A convenient cover for any SPAD
One would be forgiven for believing that ‘Number 10’, were a living thing. Number 10 believes this, or Number 10 denies that, is a common line. Yet, the house remains merely of bricks and mortar. Those relaying messages to the media, often under the ubiquitous umbrella of ‘Number 10’, are usually SPADs.
Straddling the line between politics and civil administration is a constant and timeless battle for most ministers. All parties of government have shown impatience with the self-protective nature of the civil service. For instance, Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister of the late sixties, appointed “guardians of the manifesto” in an attempt to prevent the apparently Tory leaning civil service from stalling the new government. The modern day SPAD was born.

A SPAD, the acronym refers to a Special Political Advisor; although one would be forgiven for associating it with a rather unappetising and embarrassingly British tinned meat; shapes policy and manages media relations in a way civil servants are either ill prepared to do, or are prevented from doing.

Although SPADs come in all shapes and sizes; from individuals who truly shape government policy such as the now departed Steve Hilton, to the rather large pool of innocuous characters who assist lowly ministers in staying in a job; many tend to be young, ambitious and determined to get into the higher echelons of politics. Some deride this, and the wider role of the SPAD in government. Yet as long as previous SPADs keep popping up in later years as senior political figures, expect many more bright young things to follow this treacherous path to a career in front line politics.

It is tempting to bash SPADs, but consider the difficulties that would arise without them. Civil service neutrality can leave ministers aloof to party politics. This is dangerous for the minister. Also, the 24 hour news cycle means constant scrutiny of government policy, ministers who have busy schedules would be at a loss without the well organised and media savvy SPAD. Media relations, although when done well appear effortless, often require meticulous planning and attention to detail.

Many cite the democratic deficit as a case for SPAD reform. SPADs with access to ministerial work can quite easily inspire jealously amongst backbench MPs. Why not have backbenches act as party political advisors? Yet the office of MP is one of a public face, the special advisor is not. Indeed, when a SPAD does become a public face, it is often a sign of an impending fall from grace à la Adam Smith, the culture secretary’s former advisor.

It is sometimes considered a wonder why anyone would even consider taking on the job. The role is volatile, and often short lived; Duncan Brack, advisor to Chris Huhne, was informed of the termination of his contract via email a mere 5 hours after the former energy secretary’s resignation. SPADs are also poorly paid relative to the amount they shape government policy, or what they could earn outside of it. Nevertheless, for those looking to climb the perfidious political pecking order, the role of SPAD is a tried and tested method.  

Voters are becoming increasingly aware of the power these unelected advisors can wield. The perception of the special advisor remains that of a mysterious figure shaping policy in the shadows. Yet the dilemma between accountability and party loyalty inherent in government inevitably requires such a figure. Do not expect the number of SPADs to drop any time soon. 

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