This article is from the May issue of Total Politics

Special advisers (SpAds) under New Labour tended to attract a bad press – think Alastair Campbell, Damian McBride, or Jo (“good day to bury bad news”) Moore. The coalition came to power with a determination to reduce their influence, even though both David Cameron and Nick Clegg had been SpAds themselves (Clegg in the rather different context of a European Commissioner’s cabinet). The coalition programme, accordingly, contained a commitment to “place a limit on the number of SpAds”.

Fortunately, it didn’t say what the limit should be, as numbers since then have steadily climbed, from 66 after the election to 74 in March 2011 and 81 in December 2011 – now higher than the 78 at the end of the last Labour government. This is a somewhat belated – and welcome – recognition of the fact that coalition increases the need for SpAds, adding another relationship to the several that SpAds are there to manage.

Until February, I was a SpAd, working for Chris Huhne. SpAds are the personal appointments of cabinet ministers, and live and die with them. Most of them worked for these MPs in opposition and moved into government with them, but my background was slightly different. I’d known Chris for a long time, and helped on his leadership campaign in 2007. I also had a background in environmental policy, through my previous job at Chatham House. He asked me at the Lib Dem special conference on the Sunday after the coalition was agreed if I was interested in the post, and eight days later I started. The job lasted for just over 20 months, to the day Chris stood down. My letter of dismissal popped into my inbox five hours after he resigned.

Every SpAd job is different – it varies with the department, the minister and the individual – so I’m not pretending that what I did at DECC is at all typical of SpAds in general, or even of my successors. Nevertheless, there’s a range of functions that all SpAds carry out, to a greater or lesser extent.

In theory at least, the main role of SpAds is to help ministers implement their political priorities. This goes back to the first systematic use of SpAds under Harold Wilson’s Labour government in 1964-70. After 13 years of Conservative administration, Labour felt the need to bring in “guardians of the manifesto”, to help overworked ministers ensure that civil servants adjusted to the new government’s priorities, particularly where major changes were involved.

This was never much of an issue for us. DECC was pointing more or less in the right direction when we took over, though Labour’s approach had been somewhat incoherent. We aimed to speed up the development and implementation of policy to tackle climate change and develop low-carbon energy, and to give a higher priority to certain areas, such as energy efficiency. The only major problem Lib Dems could have had with DECC’s previous stance was in the commitment to new nuclear stations, but that question had been settled in the coalition negotiations.

We didn’t, therefore, anticipate any particular problems with our civil servants – who, in general, were excellent and highly committed. Mostly what I did, particularly in the early months, was to help them understand what Chris would be likely to want in terms of policy options, especially on issues not covered in the manifesto or the coalition programme. That’s not to say that I never disagreed with them, but it didn’t happen often, and mostly over issues where I thought the division of responsibilities between departments meant that our officials were forced into taking an unnecessarily narrow view of the overall climate objective.

Where the disagreements really came was in relations with other sections of the government. DECC is a very small department, but its brief is broad, leading on climate policy government-wide. In reality, this meant that realising our objectives often depended on actions by other departments – as well as the Treasury (always crucial, of course, for every ministry), BIS, Defra, Transport, CLG, the Foreign Office and DFID all had key roles.

Arguing with SpAds in these other departments took up a surprising amount of my time – and mostly it wasn’t that productive, as we often ended up bouncing matters up to ministers. The study of the workings of the coalition shortly to be published by the Constitution Unit at UCL suggests that I wasn’t alone in this, finding that compared to the previous government, SpAds have (at least so far) played less of a brokering role between departments and ministers. Partly this is because we come from different parties, but mostly because we simply lacked the authority to reach agreement, at least over major issues. (Note that this doesn’t apply to the centre – the PM’s and deputy PM’s SpAds spend much of their time managing relations between the coalition partners. The DPM’s office helped to sort out our problems on more than one occasion, though the ministers always decided the key issues.)

The kind of ‘super-SpAds’ that evolved under the Labour government, usually based in Downing Street or the Treasury, were entirely absent – from the point of view of environmental policy, which requires cross-government action, that’s a drawback. In practice, no one at No 10 was responsible for promoting green policies, though this was mitigated a little by the expansion of the policy unit in early 2011.

I’ve written elsewhere about the difficulties of pursuing the green agenda across government. One of the real pleasures in working for Chris Huhne was his willingness to take on other departments – particularly the Treasury – and his ability to win the arguments. As James Murray’s BusinessGreen blog said after Huhne’s resignation: “So long, Chris Huhne, and thanks for all the fights” – over climate targets, renewable energy, the Green Investment Bank, and many more. We also got steadily better at working together with Lib Dem ministers in other key departments, such as Transport, CLG and BIS. Although there are some good green Tory ministers and MPs, they’re in a minority in their own party; this being the “the greenest government ever” is largely thanks to Lib Dem efforts.

Having said all this, it was notable how few of my arguments were conducted along party political lines. The departments I had least trouble with were DfID and Defra; those which required much more time-consuming discussions were BIS and the Treasury. I’m sure the previous government experienced exactly the same tensions. However, on green policies, DECC, Defra and DfID are always likely to share more of a common agenda than any of them would with BIS or the Treasury. For example, media reports suggest that Defra ministers were just as unhappy as we were with the chancellor’s decision to attack the “burden” of environmental regulation (despite an almost complete lack of evidence of any negative effects) in late 2011.

SpAds are best known for their relationships with the media. Most cabinet ministers have one SpAds dedicated to the role. We did it differently. My colleague Joel Kenrick and I both worked on policy, and he also looked after media relations. My other main role was party liaison. It’s particularly important in a coalition, where inevitably the government ends up doing things one party or the other doesn’t much like, for the party grassroots to know and understand what’s going on. Communicating our record in DECC, liaising with Lib Dem MPs, peers, MEPs, councillors and party members, responding to their queries, and feeding into longer-term policy development was an important aspect of my job.

One task I hadn’t anticipated was the inputting of Lib Dem perspectives to cabinet committees – part of the general return to cabinet government after the more presidential approaches of Blair and Brown. All Lib Dem cabinet ministers are members of several of these bodies, to ensure rough parity between the parties. This meant that we were deluged with write-rounds to the European, economic and home affairs committees seeking approval for a strategy, or a position on an EU directive, or a new regulation. Most of them had nothing to do with DECC, so our officials couldn’t help with responses, but we often had things to say from a Lib Dem point of view.

Over European issues, in particular, the differences between the coalition partners were most evident. Tory ministers (with the exception of Ken Clarke) were invariably – and, in our opinion, frequently irrationally – europhobic. The PM’s attempts to marginalise the UK at the Brussels summit in December last year contrasted sharply with the success we were having, at the exactly the same time, working through the EU at the UN climate conference in Durban.

And there was a wide variety of other tasks. We had an excellent civil servant speechwriter who wrote the large number of speeches Chris had to give, but I fed ideas and phrases into them, and wrote the party political ones myself (except for the major party conference speeches, which Chris insisted on writing himself. Annoyingly – I enjoy writing speeches – he was rather good at it). We also acted as a contact point with the outside world: NGOs, industry, think tanks,and so on, though DECC is a very open department, and most of these people had good links to our officials.

People always asked me how we got on with the Tories. Within DECC, we had a very good relationship with our three junior ministers and their PPSs, and we had no major disagreements over the coalition programme. I also got on pretty well with Conservative SpAds and ministers in departments such as DfID and Defra.

Apart from that, I didn’t have much contact with Tories; the network of Lib Dem SpAds and ministers was far more valuable. And in any case, the bulk of our arguments tended to be along departmental rather than party political lines. That’s not really surprising – the huge volume of government business that ministers have to cope with is mostly on issues too detailed and ‘micro-level’ to feature in party programmes.
Of course, there were differences in tone and attitude. As I’ve highlighted, Lib Dems are greener and more sensible about Europe. Also, we’re less prone to think that the private sector, or a voluntary approach, can solve everything. Unlike Tory deregulatory fanatics, we see the positive value of regulation, particularly in the environmental field. And of course there are distinctions over issues such as tax policy and the NHS that were well outside my brief at DECC.

Looking back on my time as a SpAd, I had a relatively sheltered life – though it hardly seemed like it at the time. My Lib Dem colleagues in the DPM’s office and departments like the Treasury had much more daily interaction with our coalition partners. Handling those relationships comes on top of all the things that SpAds have to do, and underscore the importance of their role.

It’s good news that the DPM’s office has now been expanded by another five SpAds, each with responsibility for looking out for Lib Dem interests in departments where we don’t have the secretary of state – though I don’t envy them their role. In future, there should be SpAds from both parties in every department.

The coalition agreement was wrong to want to reduce the number of SpAds (though of course it didn’t quite say that), but right in wanting to see a change of style from New Labour days. One thing I didn’t do was insist on “vetting every single utterance made by the most junior press officer or policy official”, as one civil servant predicted to me that I would when I started the job, presumably based on his experience of the previous administration. Actually, it was more the other way round – to start with, at least, officials insisted on getting me to approve stuff I didn’t think I needed to. And we must have had a different style from our predecessors in other ways too, judging by officials’ comments on things like politeness: definitely more Yes, Minister than The Thick of It.

The antics of people like McBride and Moore have given SpAds an unjustifiably bad reputation. In reality, they are an essential part of governance, and the UK is unusual in having so few in government. They help ministers and civil servants do their job better and they help the coalition work. Good luck to them all.

Duncan Brack was SpAd to former energy and climate change secretary Chris Huhne between 2010-12

Tags: Chris Huhne, Department of energy and climate, Duncan brack, Issue 47, Special advisers