Join Hafta-Ichi to Research the article “One big lesson of the pandemic: spads are as important as the ministers they serve | Coronavirus”
When all this is over, which political insider’s book about Britain’s battles with the Covid pandemic will you actually want to read? My guess is that, for most people, the answer to that question is unlikely to be those by Boris Johnson, Matt Hancock, or Nicola Sturgeon, although all three would seem quite likely to offer us their accounts at various points in the future.
Instead it might be those penned by Chris Whitty, Sarah Gilbert, Simon Stevens and – given his quotability – Jonathan Van-Tam. Although many will groan at the thought, I’d also add Dominic Cummings to the list. In other words, the accounts from the centre of government that will inform and resonate will be those of the advisers and the experts.
Those of us who write about politics and government inevitably focus on ministers. Like others of my journalistic tribe, I’ve got dozens of ministerial memoirs, biographies and diaries on my shelves. But I possess far fewer accounts by or about the men and women in the back offices who sat in meetings with ministers, drafted memos for them, sometimes argued points with them, and had their ear. Their memoirs are few and far between.
Yet the advisers and experts are always central, especially in a crisis such as this. No account of Winston Churchill in the second world war makes sense without reading the accounts by his military advisers,such as Sir Alan Brooke. No account of Richard Nixon’s presidency can be understood without studying John Dean or Henry Kissinger.
By convention, and often inclination, most British advisers speak as rarely as possible in public. Yet they were there too, every day of this crisis. If and when there is an inquiry into Britain’s handling of the pandemic, the ministers will be the subject of headlines, but the advisers’ accounts will be indispensable evidence on all the key questions about responses, planning and decision-making.
The combination of Michael Gove’s comment about having had enough of experts and Cummings’s departure from Downing Street have muddied the waters about the continuing importance of advisers in the Johnson government. But for all the disruption, the reality is that advisers and experts have remained crucial players under this government, much as they were in previous ones.
Johnson’s problem has been that the quality of some of his advisers, particularly at the start of the pandemic, was not good enough. One former insider suggests that a chief problem lay in the Cabinet Office, where Johnson lacked a lieutenant with the clout that Oliver Letwin exercised under David Cameron or Jonathan Powell wielded under Tony Blair. Another source tells me that the journalist prime minister still underestimates the importance of modern media scrutiny. Or maybe the problem was always simply just Cummings.
Cummings’s chief fault was that he could not combine policy and action. This barely mattered when he helped Johnson topple Theresa May in July 2019 and create an election victory five months later. But it was ruthlessly exposed by the pandemic in the early failings on PPE and testing, and with lockdown indecisiveness. It meant that when Johnson said something should be fixed, nothing actually happened.
A source says things have changed since Cummings left, in November. He cites current special advisers including Liam Booth-Smith on levelling up at the Treasury, Oliver Lewis on the future of the union in No 10, and Tim Leunig, a “grit in the oyster” adviser who has worked in a variety of departments. None of them is the stereotypical besuited “Tory boy” spad from central casting.
Cummings nevertheless still looms large in a new collection of essays, Political Advice: Past, Present and Future, edited by two St Andrews University historians, Colin Kidd and Jacqueline Rose. He is there several times by name in Kidd and Rose’s own essay, which points out that blaming bad advisers for bad outcomes is a sport with a very long history, “for centuries BCE (Before the Cummings Era)”.
But he is also there anonymously in the current Treasury minister, Jesse Norman’s, forthright chapter on the political advice given to 18th-century governments by no less a figure than Adam Smith (of whom Norman is already a biographer). “When advisers become public figures, when they aspire to a more Napoleonic system of government, when they call for drastic upheavals in policy or practice” they prove themselves “unsuited”, he writes. Who could Norman possibly have in mind there?
Smith’s work with government is a corrective to modern advisers with such “paper-thin claims to expertise”, adds Norman. So, he could have added, is that of John Maynard Keynes and William Beveridge nearly two centuries later. In the end, the answer to bad special advisers is not to abolish all special advisers. It is to recruit better ones. They cannot all be on the level of Smith, Keynes or Beveridge. But they can certainly be better than Cummings. Kidd and Rose’s book is a reminder that government is always about far more than just politicians.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: One big lesson of the pandemic: spads are as important as the ministers they serve | Coronavirus