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Adam Smith’s Resignation – And Three Challenges To Spads

Last Updated: Friday, April 27th, 2012

I spoke to two Government special advisers in the wake of the resignation of Adam Smith – the former special adviser, or SPAD as the breed are known in the trade, who resigned after the controversy over Jeremy Hunt and Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB bid broke.  I wanted to get a sense of whether they felt that Mr Smith, who is viewed in the Westminster Village as a quiet, competent, solid operator, had in any way been unfairly treated.

The first was nervous about the matter and simply didn’t want to be drawn.  The second was very open, and speculated about whether Mr Smith had either gone well beyond his brief or, alternatively, taken a bullet for his boss by quitting.  What interested me most was a third, who I phoned about a different matter but raised Mr Smith’s case himself.  He exuded a palpable sense of “there but for the grace of God go I – and all SPADS”.

The Leveson enquiry will examine e-mails and texts that haven’t been made public so far, and it or further revelations or both will keep the Hunt story running – to whatever end.  But Mr Smith’s role in the Culture Secretary’s troubles is a reminder both of the role that SPADs play in Britain’s political system, and that their position is a very difficult one, as they well know.

“Most advisers were employed to sell their man to the press, to extol his virtues and guard his back.  Some worked solely to these ends.  Others – Peter Barnes, David Ruffley, Maurice Fraser and myself for example – also worked on the details of high policy.”  Those are the words of Hywel Williams, John Redwood’s former SPAD in the days of John Major’s Government, describing what SPADs do.  Little has changed since.

However, SPADS – political appointees brought temporarily into the civil service from outside – have certainly grown more controversial since Jack Straw served as one of the earliest, for Barbara Castle during the 1970s when she had charge of pensions, or Mr Williams worked for Mr Redwood when the latter was Welsh Secretary.  Why?  Mostly because of what happened under New Labour.

Alastair Campbell was essentially a SPAD, even though his role as head of media for Tony Blair was an infinitely more elevated one than Mr Smith’s (who, by the way, didn’t deal with the media at all).  To write that Mr Campbell was and remains controversial is a statement of the obvious.  So was Jo Moore, famously and inaccurately quoted as saying that September 11 was “a good day to bury bad news”.

So, too, was Damian McBride (though, unusually, he was originally a civil servant).  But problems with SPADS have not been confined to Labour, New or otherwise.  Andy Coulson, like Campbell, was a political appointee.  So was Christopher Myers, who was forced to resign as William Hague’s SPAD earlier in the Parliament.  And now Mr Smith has bitten the dust.

I am unashamedly pro-SPAD.  Civil servants cannot be expected to fulfill the roles that Mr Williams describes – let alone the more important one of helping to drive Government policy through the civil service.  Enoch Powell once took offence at suggesting that this institution could be compared to “a resistant material”, but so many Ministers are apparently finding it to be.

James Forsyth, the Spectator’s Political Correspondent, recently reported a meeting of Conservative Cabinet Ministers that bristled with complaints about the civil service.  It is striking that according to his account one of the Minister who joined in was Ken Clarke – no new hothead, but the most experienced member of the Cabinet and one whose Parliamentary experience reaches back to the 1970s.

These complaints didn’t arise by accident.  Three factors have strengthened the civil service at the expense of the SPADS.  (The first are not always hostile to the second, but ultimately always want the final say, and to be sure that the SPADS are kept in their place.)

  • The chequered history of SPADS under New Labour.
  • The reaction against it of David Cameron in opposition.  The Prime Minister – himself an ex-SPAD, like the Chancellor – wanted to see in government a return to the more orderly, traditional, formal style of doing business that had marked earlier administrations: “No Sofa Government” was the cry.  The consequence has been deeply damaging to the Government: a shortage of SPADs not so much in individual departments – the overall number of political appointees has risen, if anything – but at the centre, in Downing Street.  It would be an exaggeration for me to write that it’s impossible to speak to a Minister or SPAD without hearing the same complaint about Number 10 – that it has no effective political operation – but not much of one.  Above all, it is sometimes argued that Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, has become the real force behind this Government of two parts – especially since the departure from Downing Street of Cameron’s brilliant and unorthodox adviser, Steve Hilton.
  • The present trend towards a more assertive legislature.  MPs are beginning to ask why Ministers should be able to appoint anyone they like to political positions.  Neither Campbell nor Coulson, they argue, would have survived a rigorous vetting process – and such a procedure would probably have barred Christopher Myers, thus sparing the Foreign Secretary and Government some embarrassment.  It is significant that Bernard Jenkin, the increasingly assertive Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, has announced a short inquiry by his committee into SPADs.  One recommendation option available to it is that all SPADs should require Parliamentary approval before appointment.

By Paul Goodman


Paul Goodman: Louise Mensch’s debate on local papers encapsulated what’s gone wrong with the Commons.    “But a heap of interventions is no more a debate than a mass of interruptions is a conversation.  Debates such as Mrs Mensch’s are the Commons equivalent of fast food – they may meet the need of the moment, but they don’t provide a nutritious diet.

Rather, they are feeding legislative obesity – more interventions, more speeches, more debates, more legislation, more Early Day Motions.  But is Parliament really any more fit as a result?  The elections that record a decline in the vote of the Big Three, the surveys that show record disillusion, and the rise of the protest parties show that voters don’t think so.” Read more:

Councillor Peter Golds: This is a particular Tower Hamlets phenomena that needs to be investigated and the police and returning officer made to act in accordance with the existing law and rules.         “There are three polling stations in this ward. From early morning they were surrounded by groups of (mainly) men who became increasingly intimidating as the day wore on. By mid afternoon the number at St Anne’s Catholic Primary School, Underwood Road, reached 34 and by the evening it was never less than 35. It was absolutely impossible to remain on the pavement and walk to the polling station without forcing a way through this mob.” Read more:

Andrew Lilico: Some quick reactions on the return to recession.    I continue to believe that there is every reason to hope that once spending cuts actually get going the economy will gradually start to improve.  I attribute the difficulties so far to five factors: The underlying capacity for the economy to grow is much lower than most people comprehend…The banks were bailed out rather than going bust (by which I mean having debt-equity swaps imposed on them so they fell into the hands of their creditors)…Our trading partners in the Eurozone are having terrible problems associated with the euro and their own domestic challenges…The government chose to front-load the tax rises and rear-load the spending cuts in its deficit reduction programme…I always – always – urged that the deficit reduction programme should immediately, and from the off in 2010, be accompanied by additional quantitative easing (money printing). ” Read more:

Mark Reckless MP: Prime Minister – Yes, you can legally deport Qatada.  “The Home Secretary, one can only assume on the basis of advice from the Attorney-General Dominic Grieve, wants us to accept that inter-governmental custom in the Council of Europe, or the provisions of the Ministerial Code, are somehow higher authority than law as passed by the UK Parliament and interpreted by the UK’s highest court… Parliament has never given such primacy to the ECHR, or provided for judgments of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to have direct effect in UK law, in the way that it has for the EU and ECJ.” Read more:

Sunder Katwala: It’s time for an English national anthem from England’s rugby team.   “It would best to begin quickly with important symbolic steps to show that the English voice will count too. More public recognition of St George’s Day later this month would help. 2012 is a good year to remember that the date marks Shakespeare’s birthday too.

And isn’t it now time for the Six Nations rugby anthems of Land of My Fathers or Flower of Scotland to be answered by the English anthem, Jerusalem? That would not just represent fair play for England, but moving away from the English appropriation of the British anthem could also help to protect the Union and the Monarchy in the post-devolution UK.” Read more:

Tim Montgomerie: Not Woodwind Conservatism. Not Brass Conservatism. But Full Orchestra Conservatism.    “The Coalition is playing fast and loose with the Conservative Party’s law and order credentials. It isn’t about lurching to the Right but offering a balanced conservatism that occupies the whole political stage and is focused on the blue collar Britons who John Major rallied in 1992. In other words, we don’t want to just play the trumpet. We don’t just want to play the drums. We don’t just want to play the violin. A great political party is an orchestra, capable of many tunes and determined to occupy the whole stage. We need to walk and chew gum at the same time.” Read more:

Nadine Dorries MP: Cameron will not lead the Conservative Party into the next election if he charges on with Lords reform. “Cameron and Osborne have two very simple choices going forward. I say both because it is impossible to imagine Cameron taking any major policy decision without Osborne. If they make the wrong one, it could very well be the beginning of Cameron’s own personal downfall.  He needs to listen to the message he was given at the 1922 loud and clear and support the Conservative Party and his own MPs. If he chooses not to, if he decides to support the Liberal Democrats in their own desperate pursuit of power and prominence. If he places his own desire to remain in No10 for a few more years over the long term future of the party, it is almost certain Cameron will not lead the Conservative Party into the next election. Osborne is already toast. Conversation in the tea rooms has already moved onto who will be next? The answer is no longer, ever, Osborne.” Read more:

By Paul Goodman

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