Some thoughts about special advisers
Guardian leader writer, former special adviser and dragon-fairy-watcher Tom Clark commented that “Adam Smith was too special an adviser to overstep the mark”. Smith’s testimony and body language spoke volumes – as did the testimony from Jonathan Stephens, the Permanent Secretary at the DCMS who gave evidence straight after. Lord Justice Leveson’s comments and questions at the end were also interesting.
Robert Jay QC was in his element at the hearing, coldly, carefully dissecting his victim layer by layer – playing the ‘long game’ and using the huge library of emails and texts to allow viewers to draw their own conclusions. Was Smith covering up? Was he incompetent? Was Jay forcing Smith into positions where he ended up having to defend or admit the indefensible or the quite frankly absurd? It was painful viewing.
I couldn’t help but think: “Rabbit + headlights” with the way all of this was going. It was as if Stephens and Leveson agreed, when they discussed how such a seemingly bright and intelligent young man could have ended up in such a situation. They then got into a discussion about examining the relationship between special advisers and other actors in the Whitehall and Westminster jungle – ministers, civil servants, lobbyists etc. I imagine it can be a very lonely world for a young special adviser when faced with people who are much older, more experienced and wiser in the dark arts. Particularly so when you don’t have the option or ability to ‘refer things up the line’ as I often did when things got too tough for me. My view was that there were some situations that I was not paid to deal with – and that others above me were. (There were other situations on the other hand that I felt very much I was paid to deal with and take the flak for). I should add here that the Cabinet Secretary said in evidence to the Public Administration Select Committee that line management support for special advisers is something the Cabinet Office is looking at.
I wonder how many current and former special advisers are saying “There but for the grace of God go I” with Adam Smith’s testimony to Leveson? Andy Burnham, Ed Balls, David and Ed Miliband…all former special advisers on Labour’s side. If Labour had won the election, would it have been their protege’s who had found themselves in Smith’s shoes?
I’m not going to get into the business of defending Smith’s actions or his politics. I’m interested in the public administration issues and how he was managed and supported or otherwise. The first thing that strikes me is that he ended up in the position of being the go-between for the department and News International. Jonathan Stephens and Jeremy Hunt should never have allowed that to happen. Irrespective of the issue of having a political appointee to the civil service carrying out that role in what was a quasi-judicial process, the prospect of having someone so young and inexperienced going head-to-head with an experienced lobbyist from one of the most powerful multinationals in the world strikes me as…”misguided” more than anything else. It should have been an experienced senior official. But then with the scale of the cuts at DCMS meant that there were far fewer experienced hands to handle something like this than a couple of years ago.
The second issue is that of line management. As Leveson said, cabinet ministers are very busy people – it’s not as if they are sitting across the desk from their line managers having regular conversations with them. So who else is there to turn to when the going gets tough as it inevitably does? As a permanent civil servant you have a huge network to turn to for advice – as I inevitably did during tough times. To be able to turn to someone who, for example had spent time in Downing Street as a senior private secretary during Tony Blair’s era or who had faced life at the sharp end of public service delivery was a huge benefit to have. That’s not to say Smith didn’t have such a network – I’m sure that he did. But his would more likely have been a party-political one than a professional one bound by a set of rules such as the civil service management code.
This then brings into sharp focus the sorts of people who end up as special advisers: “Politicians in training” as one tweeter put it. A number of Smith’s defenders pointed out that Smith and Hunt had worked together for several years and as a result the former was particularly tuned into the thinking of the latter – which for a civil servant is what you want from a special adviser. A question they are asked more often than not is “What will the minister think of X?”
This then got me thinking: One of my former colleagues Nader Khalifa (now Secretary of Cambridge Labour Party) told me years ago of the ‘routes to becoming a minister’ – one that some of you will be familiar with. All of those routes involved spending time as a special adviser to a minister or senior politician. Yet there doesn’t seem to be anything in any of the routes he described that looked at running large organisations. There also didn’t seem to be anything around wider skills development during the time a special adviser was in place. You could say that there’s hardly any time for such things anyway – you’re flying by the seat of your pants in such a role. But if being a special adviser is acknowledged by political parties as part of the route to becoming a minister, shouldn’t political parties give a little bit more thought to the training, development and support they give to those bright young things that aspire for political office?
The other issue for me is separating the ‘political’ roles from the ‘this person is being brought in as a special adviser because they are experienced and expert in this policy area’ role. The nature of the former inevitably leads to short-term thinking around how things will play out tactically. Will X play out well with the press and with our key stakeholders? The latter in my (albeit limited experience) tends to focus on more longer term goals – though again I’ve found this depends on the age, experience, competency and aptitude of the individuals appointed. Wise owls are far less easily flustered – in part perhaps because they feel they have got less to prove than their younger counterparts.
As for Smith, as I’ve mentioned above, I’m not looking to defend Smith’s conduct or his testimony. Others will go through that in detail, picking up the shortcomings and contradictions. All I can do is adapt a quotation from Churchill on Nicholas II.
“A dark hand, gloved at first in folly, now intervenes. Exit Smith. Deliver him and all he loved to wounds and the political wilderness. Belittle his efforts, asperse his conduct, insult his memory; but pause then to tell us which other young special adviser would have been found capable.”
As for Hunt, the focus now turns onto him next week. How much did Hunt really know of what Smith was doing? Why did he or Stephens deem it appropriate to send a young special adviser to go head-to-head with an experienced lobbyist? Why were there significant differences in the approaches to dealing with News International between BIS and DCMS? Didn’t Hunt feel compromised already given his pre-existing views on the company concerned in the same way that Cable was? If so, did he raise these with the Prime Minister before accepting the appointment?
Let’s see what next week reveals.