Laura Round: Advising after Cummings

Wednesday 18 November 2020

The departure of Boris Johnson’s controversial aide could free up others to do better work


This has not been a great year to be a special adviser in government. And it’s not just the political and social challenges posed by the pandemic. There have also been various other frustrations, concerns and demands – many of them pre-dating Covid.

When Dominic Cummings entered Number 10 with Boris Johnson in 2019, it was clear that he was eager to reconstruct the machinery of government. But because he had been a special adviser himself, to Michael Gove during the years of Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, many were surprised when he began to target special advisers. Lines of reporting now led directly to Cummings; lunches with journalists were banned; and sackings were unceremonious. Wings were clipped.

Having previously been a special adviser, I know it’s a delicate (and sometimes controversial) role. Whilst civil servants are neutral participants, special advisers are explicitly political appointments, coming and going depending on the party in power and on their minister staying in post. It’s their job to protect both the government and their minister. They work closely with the civil service to ensure the government’s agenda and priorities are implemented, not impeded, by Whitehall. They are responsible for securing positive coverage of government announcements and for spotting (and preventing) incoming fire. In theory, a special adviser only has as much power and influence as their minister allows them.

Towards the end of Theresa May’s tenure, the power dynamics shifted. It was clear that, with a leadership election looming, the loyalties of special advisers lay increasingly with their minister rather than with the incumbent prime minister, resulting in an endless slew of media leaks. It was an unhealthy and untenable balance for governing, so it’s easy to understand why the Johnson administration wanted to signal a clear change. However, the changes went out of kilter and came at a cost.

Ministers were given limited independence; special advisers even less. There was a sense among spads, and even among some ministers, that it was wiser to keep a low profile and not suggest any ideas lest they not be to the liking of the new administration. Nobody dared ask questions in weekly meetings. As some have put it, there was a culture of fear. 

This has not been a great year to be a special adviser in government. And it’s not just the political and social challenges posed by the pandemic. There have also been various other frustrations, concerns and demands – many of them pre-dating Covid.

When Dominic Cummings entered Number 10 with Boris Johnson in 2019, it was clear that he was eager to reconstruct the machinery of government. But because he had been a special adviser himself, to Michael Gove during the years of Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, many were surprised when he began to target special advisers. Lines of reporting now led directly to Cummings; lunches with journalists were banned; and sackings were unceremonious. Wings were clipped.

Having previously been a special adviser, I know it’s a delicate (and sometimes controversial) role. Whilst civil servants are neutral participants, special advisers are explicitly political appointments, coming and going depending on the party in power and on their minister staying in post. It’s their job to protect both the government and their minister. They work closely with the civil service to ensure the government’s agenda and priorities are implemented, not impeded, by Whitehall. They are responsible for securing positive coverage of government announcements and for spotting (and preventing) incoming fire. In theory, a special adviser only has as much power and influence as their minister allows them.

Towards the end of Theresa May’s tenure, the power dynamics shifted. It was clear that, with a leadership election looming, the loyalties of special advisers lay increasingly with their minister rather than with the incumbent prime minister, resulting in an endless slew of media leaks. It was an unhealthy and untenable balance for governing, so it’s easy to understand why the Johnson administration wanted to signal a clear change. However, the changes went out of kilter and came at a cost.

Ministers were given limited independence; special advisers even less. There was a sense among spads, and even among some ministers, that it was wiser to keep a low profile and not suggest any ideas lest they not be to the liking of the new administration. Nobody dared ask questions in weekly meetings. As some have put it, there was a culture of fear. 

The exit of Cummings could be a moment for a reset of sorts. There are a number of areas where a reinvigorated group of special advisers could help to advance the interests of the government. 

Firstly, in the past year, there has been too tight a grip from the centre. This administration needs to start trusting senior ministers and their advisers; to give them the necessary space to work and to empower them to deliver on the government’s priorities. It’s hard for ideas to incubate in a monoculture, and there’s reason to hope that, in a less overbearing environment, any policy ideas will be more likely to be shared across government. People will also be less afraid to identify and raise potential problems early on, so they can be averted.

What’s more, special advisers have a crucial role to play in maintaining Johnson’s relationship with his backbench MPs, as well as with the political party as a whole. There’s already a type of backroom facilitator – parliamentary private secretaries – who works to bring ministers and MPs together. However, a good special adviser always makes sure that they engage with the parliamentary party and that their minister is speaking to and, most importantly, listening to those MPs. Embarrassing U-turns and rebellions can be avoided this way. 

Similarly, special advisers should also be talking to journalists. Under Cummings, there was a ban on special advisers going out for lunch with the press – presumably from fear of leaks. Yet spads play an important role in promoting announcements and defending government policy to the media. Fewer meet-ups means fewer ways to temper the media response to new announcements and policies.

Lastly, relationships with people outside of Westminster are also in need of repair. For someone who was said to be so passionate about looking outside the bubble, Cummings’ tenure, was, above all else, characterised by a striking insularity and bunker mentality. This administration has, at times, seemed cloth-eared to the legitimate concerns of businesses (both big and small), industry bodies, unions, and others. Special advisers are well placed to help build and reinforce bridges between the government and the wider world. 

Ultimately, being a special adviser is a unique, and in many ways privileged, job; one that should instil a sense of pride, passion and duty. Hopefully, that will be the case – uncomplicatedly – in 2021. A new year beckons.

Laura Round is a former special adviser to the defence secretary and secretary of state for international development