18 October 2011

The coalition came to power pledging to cut the number of special advisers, but now employs more "SpAds" than did the last Labour government. What explains this u-turn?

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg is in the process of appointing around half a dozen additional special advisers (SpAds). This will apparently take the overall number of SpAds across Whitehall to around 80, above the level at the end of the Labour administration (and not counting other political appointees within the civil service, let alone unofficial advisers involved in certain aspects of ministerial business).

This recent development – if confirmed – would provide the latest evidence that the government has come to regret its early commitment to slash the number of advisers. The Conservatives in particular had long espoused an antipathy to SpAds – simplistically associated in much public debate with dirty tricks (especially following the Damian McBride affair), politicisation of the civil service and “good days to bury bad news” – and came into power determined to cut their numbers.

Having pledged to “put a limit on the number of Special Advisers” (a limit that was never subsequently quantified), the coalition initially appointed just 66 SpAds. But as previously discussed on the IfG Blog, the number of SpAds has been steadily rising since then, partly in response to the view that Number 10 was understaffed and unable to keep tabs on developments across Whitehall, running into political storms (over forestry and NHS Reform, for instance) as a consequence.

The Institute for Government has long felt that much of the anti-SpAd rhetoric was misguided and exaggerated. For one thing, even as the total number of special advisers creeps back towards the peak of 85 or so under Tony Blair, the figure is dwarfed by 20,000 or so civil servants across Whitehall.

Under a coalition, the argument against slashing the number of political appointees seems particularly persuasive, since there is a greater need for figures with the ear of ministers who can undertake party-political tasks that impartial officials cannot, such as negotiating with the other party and with backbench MPs to strike policy agreements.

According to the coalition’s official rulebook, the government operates according to “the principle of balance” between the two coalition partners, with both PM and DPM given a “full and contemporaneous overview of the business of government”. As the junior partner in the coalition, with far fewer ministerial portfolios, it is particularly important for the Liberal Democrats to have sufficient advisers in place, to ensure that the party is able to influence policy discussions across Whitehall – in particular in those policy areas where the party has no ministerial representation at all – and to preserve the party’s distinct identity.

And with Nick Clegg having opted against taking on a major departmental portfolio (as his German, Dutch or Swedish counterparts would have done), the DPM remains relatively underpowered within the Whitehall machine in comparison with David Cameron (though his office was already strengthened last year, following IfG recommendations).

Appointing a few additional LibDem advisers may therefore help to compensate for some of these issues and to ensure that the principle of balance operates in a meaningful way. Inevitably, perhaps, the decision to allocate extra resources to the LibDems has reportedly irked a few Tory ministers, so perhaps the next step will be to loosen restrictions on Conservative political appointees too.

The growth of SpAds might well spark fresh controversy about “politicisation” of Whitehall, but hopefully it might also allow a more mature debate about what resources ministers actually need to conduct their jobs, and about the role that SpAds can themselves play in delivering effective government.