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Ministers are responsible for the actions of special advisers – including Dominic Cummings

Special advisers are central to this government. We should know exactly what role they play.

Special advisers are central to this government. We should know exactly what role they play, says Tim Durrant

Intense coverage of Dominic Cummings, and his trip to Durham during the lockdown, is a reminder of just how important he is to the government. It is very rare for an adviser to hold a press conference, even one where, as the prime minister's chief adviser made clear, he was only speaking for himself not the government or the prime minister. It is also rare for cabinet ministers to take to twitter and the airwaves to defend a special adviser’s actions.

But beyond the political drama, this episode has drawn attention to the role and influence of special advisers across this government. Given their importance, it is essential that their actions are scrutinised – and that ministers are held accountable for what they do.

Cummings is a powerful adviser – and he is not the only one

A powerful adviser in Downing Street is nothing new. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s director of communications, had his fair share of controversial moments. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, co-chiefs of staff to Theresa May, became so unpopular within the Conservative Party that May was forced to remove the pair after the 2017 general election.

Cummings is not officially the prime minister’s chief of staff, or even the highest paid political appointee in the government. But since Johnson moved into No10, Cummings’ powerbase has been building. His approach to the recruitment and management of special advisers across government has seen him fire an aide to the previous chancellor Sajid Javid and move to impose greater discipline across the adviser network – he reportedly banned advisers from having lunch with journalists, for example. As a result, Cummings has perhaps been attempting more direct interference into other government departments than any other previous adviser in No10.

But Cummings, whose leading role in the Brexit referendum has been portrayed in a Channel 4 drama, is not the only high-profile adviser in government. Johnson has also set a new precedent in appointing David Frost as the government’s chief negotiator with the EU. Frost issues statements on the status of negotiations and is appearing in front of two select committees this week to discuss progress. In 2019, Dominic Cummings was famously found in contempt of parliament for refusing to appear in front of a select committee. So Frost’s openness to scrutiny is welcome, given that he enjoys a level of responsibility and visibility that few, if any, advisers have had in the past.

With great power comes great responsibility

However, more scrutiny of the role of special advisers is required. It is the prime minister’s choice who to appoint to No10, and he has made very clear that he wants Cummings to remain at his side. But this latest controversy has raised even more questions about Cummings’ role and how he is held accountable. The revelation that he had attended SAGE committee meetings to discuss the science behind the government’s response to Covid-19 highlighted the extent of his each in government, while Cummings used his Downing Street press conference to emphasise the extent and importance of his role. It is right, therefore, that more is known about the job he is doing, what meetings he attends, what committees he sits on, and what decisions he takes.

There is a code of conduct for special advisers, maintained by the Cabinet Office, which was last updated in December 2016. This makes clear that advisers cannot ‘exercise any statutory or prerogative power’, which is for ministers alone. It also states that advisers are temporary civil servants – albeit exempt from the duty placed on officials to be politically impartial and objective – and are therefore subject to many of the same rules as permanent officials. And the code works on the assumption that advisers play a ‘behind the scenes’ role – they ‘must not take public part in political controversy, through any form of statement’.

Cummings' press conference may have been the result of an extraordinary situation, but Frost is giving regular statements and tweets frequently about his role. Johnson is clearly willing for his advisers to play a higher profile role in government. As a result, it is entirely legitimate for there to be greater scrutiny of what advisers actually do, particularly from parliamentarians, and for the code to be updated to reflect their new role and the scrutiny it requires.

Ultimately, it is for the prime minister to answer questions on his advisers

Ultimately, however, it is government ministers themselves who are responsible for what advisers do and how their conduct should be judged. And under the principle of ministerial accountability, it is for democratically elected ministers, rather than appointed advisers or impartial officials, to be held to account for the decisions of the government. 

The scrutiny of Cummings’ trip to Durham is appropriate, and the prime minister’s determination to hold on to him underlines his importance to the government. The prime minister must now be open with the country and set out clearly what advisers do, and what official committees and other groups they sit on. He should also ensure that the code of conduct for special advisers is updated to reflect the role they are playing. Because whatever Dominic Cummings does or does not do for the government, he does it in Boris Johnson’s name.

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