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Wednesday, 12 January, 2000, 04:53 GMT
The advisers: Modernisation or politicisation?

John Major made do with a mere eight special advisers when he was in Downing Street. Tony Blair, perhaps living up to the New Labour spin that the party does all things bigger and better than its rivals, has 20.

The role of a government special adviser is a chronically ill-defined one. It can range from policy wonk to departmental jester keeping the ministerial boss amused. Special advisers are state employees with access to confidential government papers, but remain unelected and unaccountable to Parliament.

This is the state of affairs addressed the latest report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Lord Neill.

Just as cloaked in mystery as what special advisers do is what these government employees, funded by the public purse, are paid.

The number of political appointees in Number Ten has boomed from eight under John Major to 20 under Tony Blair
The Downing Street Policy Unit keeps confidential the salaries of all but three of them - Mr Blair's official spokesman Alastair Campbell (93,562), Ten Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell (93,562) and Drugs "Czar" Keith Hellawell (109,027).

What the public is permitted to know is that the total cost of political advisers across the New Labour government is now 4m a year - a considerable increase on the 1.9m annual bill under the previous Conservative administration.

Boundaries blurred

Other New Labour innovations around the use of political advisers have rattled Whitehall and opposition parties.

Take the example of Alastair Campbell, the prime minister's official spokesman. Mr Campbell was Mr Blair's press secretary in opposition. Like many political advisers, he was imported into government with his boss after the general election.

His was, without doubt, a political appointment. Yet he is also a civil servant. It is this blurring of the boundaries between party politics and civil service neutrality that Lord Neill tackle.

As yet, no code exists expressly defining the boundaries between the duties and responsibilities of political advisers and politically neutral civil servants.

There is, however, a model contract of employment for special advisers. Before the last election this stated that they "should not engage in activities likely to give rise to criticism that you are being employed at public expense for purely political purposes".

When Mr Blair entered Downing Street the guidelines were changed to read: "The government needs to present its policies and achievements positively.

Alastair Campbell followed Tony Blair from opposition into government
"It would be damaging to the government's objectives if the government party took a different approach to that of the government itself, and the government will therefore need to liaise with the party to make sure the party publicity is factually accurate and consistent with government policy."

Proxy wars

And then there are the personal encounters. It is a rare political journalist at Westminster that does not have an anecdote to relate on being misled, bullied or spun up the garden path by a political adviser.

Some advisers, moreover, proved too flamboyant for their own - or their bosses' - good. Charlie Whelan, former adviser to Chancellor Gordon Brown, is probably the best known, having become more prominent than many ministers - a dangerous position for an unelected aide.

He was forced to stand down from Mr Brown's side a year ago in the fall-out from Peter Mandelson's resignation from the cabinet over the then-trade and industry secretary's secret loan from fellow minister Geoffrey Robinson.

It was the culmination of years of internal Labour feuding between the Brown and Blair camps, often prosecuted through proxy wars involving their closest aides and allies briefing against each other.

Whelan stood accused of being the source of the leak of Mandelson's secret loan. Whether he was or not, the cold war being waged between the Blair and Brown camps required that the forced departure of Mandelson, the prime minister's most trusted ally, be matched by Whelan's resignation soon after.

Other notable Whelan escapades include being caught over-spinning the national press on his mobile phone from a pub in Whitehall. The subject was the government's intentions on the euro.

This pub-sighting of Whelan mid-spin would have caused no comment were it not for the fact that weeks of damaging spin-led speculation on the government's timetable for euro-entry had been causing havoc on the money markets.

The spinner becomes the story

Charlie Whelan was forced to leave his job soon after his enemy Peter Mandelson left his
Another political adviser who managed to attract more attention than is healthy was Joe McCrea, aide to Frank Dobson before he stood down as health secretary.

Like Charlie Whelan, McCrea followed his political boss into government. Also like Whelan, his off-stage antics started to become stories in themselves.

Such stories often arose from clashes with health journalists. At Labour's annual conference in Bournemouth last autumn, he was witnessed in a crowded hotel bar furiously berating a female journalist. The air turned blue, a mobile phone ended up damaged and the contents of a glass of wine found their way to McCrea's face.

When Mr Dobson allowed himself to be persuaded to leave the cabinet to contest Labour's London mayoral nomination, McCrea found himself out of his special adviser's job.

Not that he has remained idle. Controversial new plans underway to introduce a "rapid rebuttal unit" (including a new electronic media database similar to the Excalibur system used by Labour in opposition) into Number 10 were devised by one Joe McCrea.

It is developments like that, along with the setting up after the last election of a Strategic Communications Unit within Number 10, which have sparked protests from Conservatives and others.

Chief among their complaints are that the civil service is being politicised and Labour is getting valuable party political work done at the taxpayers' expense.

Another concern is that the old civil service code by which political advisers are regulated has become unworkable because they are not so much an addition to Whitehall staff any more, but have become a parallel, almost alternative civil service.

High turnover

Lord Neill, chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, has tackled the issue of political advisers
As well as the bringing in of more advisers, the arrival in office of New Labour sparked the exit of many of the heads of information of government departments.

By the end of last year, only two of the 17 heads of information in place when the government came to power in 1997 remained in place.

Supporters of the changes say it is only right the government should be able to defend its policies with vigour against attack. That the necessary resources to respond to co-ordinate policy announcements and explain them to the public were not previously available was a serious failing.

As for the charge of politicising the civil service, after 18 years of Tory rule it would be surprising if many heads of information had not moved on as new bosses inevitable came in with new requirements and ways of doing things.

Even some longtime Blairites, though, accept there is a need for greater accountability of the new rank of hybrid party-civil servants that has boomed under Labour.

Tony Wright, Labour chairman of the Public Administration Select Committee and a committed moderniser in his own party, has said he is minded to set up an inquiry into the issue and to call the prime minister to give evidence.

He believes this is necessary because the new layer of Downing Street-based special advisers alone makes up a de facto prime minister's department with no ministerial accountability to Parliament.

Lord Neill looks to have got there first, though the recommendations contained in his committee's report are not as sweeping as forecast by pre-publication speculation.

Nevertheless, the committee's call for a clear code of conduct for political advisers could be just the start of a clear change in the way ministers and their closest advisers operate in government.

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See also:
10 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Labour spindoctors 'lack propriety'
09 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Conduct code for government advisers
07 Jan 00 |  UK Politics
Government developing 'new rebuttal system'
15 Dec 99 |  UK Politics
Yeah, minister: Civil service modernises
20 Aug 99 |  UK Politics
Concern over Blair's 'increasing' advisers
11 Jan 99 |  UK Politics
Civil war that hit New Labour project

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