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Building a Conservative Majority (16): More political firepower for ministers

By Tim Montgomerie
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This Building A Majority section of ConHome has five component parts:

Today, in our 16th idea, I recommend that David Cameron ensures that more ministers have Special Advisers (SpAds). Some SpAds are deeply political. One of them briefed against me in a very nasty and personal way after ConHome called for the NHS Bill not to proceed. At their best, however, they help ministers get a grip of their departments. Special Advisers are there to ensure that their ministers' political will is imposed on a department. Among the most successful in Whitehall at the moment are Philippa Stroud at Work and Pensions, Dom Cummings at Education, Nick Timothy at the Home Office, Sheridan Westlake at DCLG and Rupert Harrison at the Treasury.

There are only a certain number of hours in every day when ministers can progress chase policies, write speeches, proof-read letters and find out what their civil servants are up to. SpAds can help in these tasks and help ensure red boxes are, for example, prepared in a way that is helpful to ministers. Cameron has given more SpAds to the Liberal Democrats but many Tory ministers are struggling on their own in departments. In yesterday's FT Neil O'Brien of Policy Exchange made the case for more political support for ministers, noting that other countries provide much more support for their politicians:

"Mr Cameron and Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, urgently need a stronger, more political Downing Street. In the past year, most of the political people have departed the building, leaving a central policy unit led and run by civil servants. These are top-calibre officials but they need politically motivated people, too. Without strong political link people for each department, Mr Cameron has no early warning radar, and things will go wrong for him – from disasters such as the health bill to the smaller rows that could have been avoided. People worry about the expense. But peak expenditure on special advisers under Labour was £5.6m a year – less than the government pays in benefits to dead people each week. Advisers enable ministers to grip their department and cut costs. Elsewhere, their numbers are much higher: Australia has twice as many, with only a quarter of the number of civil servants. Germany’s Angela Merkel has a whole chancellor’s department to enforce her will."

As long ago as May 2010 I suggested the PM's cap on SpAds be the Coalition's first U-turn but apart from the concession to Clegg there is no sign that Cameron is ready to change his view on this question. Although he joked last week that the Yes, Minister comedy was - contrary to his expectations - actually a pretty accurate portrayal of Whitehall life he has, by common consent, handed more power over his Downing Street operation to civil servants than any modern Prime Minister. The result is Whitehall is being increasingly run by the civil service. They are particularly adept at playing Lib Dem ministers off against Conservative ministers to ensure they get what they want. The Downing Street machine was expertly critiqued by James Kirkup at the weekend and I'll return to that general subject on another occasion. For the time being, however, idea 16 in this series is a call for ministers to get the kind of support that will help them deliver the kind of government that might get re-elected.

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