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First, fewer Special Advisers. Now, a record number. But where's much of the growth? Step forward, Nick Clegg...

By Lewis Sidnick
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Screen shot 2013-06-11 at 20.12.17The departure of Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson from Downing Street received widespread media coverage.  But much less attention has been given to the wave of Prime Ministerial advisers and Special Advisers (SpAds) deserting their posts. Since 2010, with a few exceptions, Secretaries of State have been allowed to have a SpAd, but other Ministers have not (in contrast to the Blair and Brown Governments). When entering Downing Street, David Cameron placed great emphasis on cutting the number of advisers across Government from 82 to 61. The decision got some good headlines - but it was a mistake.

SpAds are crucial to their Ministers. First, they are political, and can therefore protect, warn and be a safety net for a Minister walking the tightrope of Ministerial office. Civil servants have agendas (to varying degrees). They want to direct their Ministers, and they want to influence decisions. A Minister often stands very little chance against an army of civil servants and the boxes of papers that they present. A little advice and perspective from their political adviser can be crucial - but this is unavailable to most of David Cameron’s Ministers below Cabinet level.

Since the 2010 decision, the number of advisers has in fact been steadily growing, and peaked at 84 in early 2012 - more than under the last Government. However, the growth has not been in the areas where it is most needed. The number of SpAds in Government Departments has remained at around the same level, while the growth has been primarily in the Deputy Prime Minister’s office. For the first year after the 2010 Election, Nick Clegg had four advisers in his private office. In July 2011, he added just one more, but by the start of 2012 the number of advisers in his office increased to 14, mostly made up of policy advisers, each linked to a different Government Departments. The Prime Minister had 18 after the 2010 election. That number rose to 20, and now stands at 19. The reason for the growth in the number of Deputy Prime Ministerial advisers, according to a Downing Street spokesman, is that “clearly, we have a coalition Government and that means we have SpAds for two political parties.”

However, while there has been growth in the number of advisers, the new intake haven’t added to the old crowd. The turnover rate is extraordinary, even for political sector jobs. Of the 20 advisers in Cameron’s office in June 2010, just five remain today, a 75 per cent turnover rate that would send alarm bells ringing in the Human Resources Department of any private organisation. Of the four advisers who started in Clegg's office, just one remains today.

Outside Downing Street, individual Government Departments have lost over 15 SpAds. This means practically every Department has lost one of its advisers (normally one or two per Department - a political advisor and a media advisor). This rate of departure is particularly high precisely because there has not been a great number of reshuffles in this Parliament (SpAds tend to leave if their Minister gets the chop). So within a relatively stable Government with more settled Ministers, the quantity of advisers at the heart of Government leaving can probably be attributed to their expectation that their bosses will be sitting on the Opposition benches after 2015.

They can also demand higher salaries now than after the election, especially as the market gets flooded after a Party leaves Government. A large number of those who have left have gone to public affairs consultancies and trade associations (interestingly, not as many have gone to take up in-house roles). Some have taken work as full time staff, and others as part-time advisers.  The latter are accused (often wrongly) of only being rolled out at pitch time by consultants looking for new clients.

Corporate affairs recruiter Wayne Reynolds of Birchwood Knight told me that: “whilst many of the skills good SpAds possess are highly transferable to a corporate environment, there is often a gap in areas such as people and budget management relative to their salary expectations that can be more easily overcome in a consultancy role.”

Examples of those going to consultancies rather than in-house roles include James O’Shaughnessy, a former Director of Policy at Number 10, who now advises Portland Public Affairs. MHP Communications have snapped up three former SpAds. Earlier this year, Flora Coleman, an adviser to Lord Strathclyde, joined MHP - and Bill Morgan, a former adviser to Andrew Lansley, as well as Sean Worth, a former Downing Street adviser. Those leaving for Trade Associations have included Peter Campbell, who went to the Business Services Association from Number 10, and Paul Stephenson, who left the Department of Health to join the British Bankers Association.

So the number of SpAds has steadily grown in the last few years (with huge turnover rates) and has overtaken the number working for the previous Government.  To summarise, the Prime Minister has simultaneously failed to keep his pledge to reduce the number of special advisers working in Government while also leaving his Ministers with less support than their predecessors had in the last Parliament. This is primarily because of the growth in the number of advisers working for his deputy - another price to pay for coalition Government, some will say.


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