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Special advisers with greater powers also require greater scrutiny

If the trend of giving special advisers new responsibilities continues, ministers cannot complain when their advisers face greater scrutiny

Since the election last year, a number of special advisers in No10 have been vested with new responsibilities. If this trend continues, ministers cannot complain when their advisers face greater scrutiny, says Tim Durrant

In Boris Johnson government’s quest to centralise control, the role of special advisers has come to the fore. The government communications teams will now report to the No10 director of communications, Lee Cain, as well as the new permanent secretary at No10, Simon Case. Sir Mark Sedwill will be replaced as national security adviser by the newly-ennobled Lord (David) Frost, a special adviser who will take on the role while continuing to negotiate the UK’s future relationship with the EU. And then there is Dominic Cummings, the highest profile adviser of all. From military sites to reforming the civil service to the role of data in decision making, Cummings takes an interest across the whole of government.

As well as individual advisers in No10 taking on new responsibilities and attracting greater attention, the government is centralising the way that special advisers are recruited for all government ministers. Boris Johnson’s team have exercised a veto on potential new advisers to a much greater extent than past prime ministerial aides, with Sajid Javid quitting as chancellor rather than accept No10’s attempt to fire his advisers and assign him a new team. But while this approach allows No10 to take back control of certain parts of government, it also raises questions about where accountability for the actions of advisers really lies.

There have always been powerful advisers in No10, but their role is always slightly different

This is not the first government to have powerful advisers working behind the scenes in No10. Tony Blair made an ‘Order in Council’ that allowed Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff, and Alastair Campbell, the director of communications, to direct civil servants, something special advisers are not generally supposed to do. Campbell also installed the ‘grid’ system of managing announcements and took greater control of departments’ communications strategies.

And Theresa May’s co-chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, exercised an iron grip over what crossed the prime minister’s desk. Following the 2017 general election result, May was forced to remove Timothy and Hill, with many of her cabinet colleagues unhappy with their heavy-handed approach.

But this government is ramping up the role of some advisers still further. Frost’s role as chief negotiator raises questions about who is making decisions in the negotiations. Gavin Barwell, the former No10 chief of staff, described him as “David Davis… the person reporting to the prime minister who is leading or negotiations”, which implies that Frost is a de facto minister. And Cummings’ ability to fire and hire special advisers, in the prime minister’s name but seemingly on his own criteria, raises questions about whether these advisers have taken on de facto ministerial powers and responsibilities.  

If the power of advisers continues to grow, they will face calls for greater scrutiny

It is up to the prime minister who he employs as an adviser and the extent of their powers and responsibilities. We also know from the reaction to Dominic Cummings’ lockdown travels in County Durham that Boris Johnson would prefer his advisers to stay out of the headlines. But if he chooses to effectively delegate certain powers to them, he cannot be surprised when there are calls for advisers to face greater scrutiny.

David Frost has already become one of very few serving special advisers to appear in front of a select committee, and his appearances in parliament are only likely to continue to increase when he takes on the national security role. Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Commons defence select committee, has called for Cummings to face the same scrutiny as ministers following reports of his involvement in a review of the UK’s military strategy. Cummings himself has avoided such scrutiny in the past, being found in contempt of parliament for failing to appear in front of MPs.

The prime minister seems to want to allow his advisers to do part of his job for him but with none of the necessary scrutiny that elected politicians receive. High-profile advisers can act as useful lightning rods for a prime minister, and sometimes the focus on their role is overblown. But the more they are seen as conducting government business in their own right, the more they will attract attention and the calls for them to be scrutinised, in public, will grow. This will fundamentally change the role of special advisers and reduce the power of ministers. Yet there are no signs that this government realises that is the road it is heading down.

If the prime minister does not want his advisers to be the story, if he wants advisers to continue to be behind the scenes, he must reinforce the principle of ministerial accountability and acknowledge that everything advisers do, they do in ministers’ names. On the other hand, if the prime minister does want advisers to take on more of a quasi-executive role, he must accept that those advisers need to face greater scrutiny and acknowledge this change for what it is. Rather than hide from this, ministers should allow those exercising their powers to be held properly to account. At the moment we seem stuck in the worst of both worlds.

Johnson government
Number 10
Institute for Government

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