Let Cameron have his SpAds

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 31 March 2011 in Diary
The cap on hiring special advisers has resulted in a dishonest compromise - David Cameron should lift the ban on political appointments

While the rest of Whitehall endures a civil service recruitment freeze the Department for Education is recruiting two new speechwriters to work closely with ministers. Aside from the issue of Michael Gove hiring while other departments slash experienced communications staff, whats the betting these new message-masters will be card-carrying Tories?

From burying bad news on 9/11 to smeargate, tales of naughtiness from New Labour's political appointees were legendary, leading to Conservative and Liberal Democrat pledges to reduce the number of so-called spin doctors. These crystallised as stronger controls, though not a hard cap, in the coalition agreement, with David Cameron asking each member of the cabinet to dispense with policy staff and recruit a single media-focused special adviser.

Front benchers will now be accustomed to the sometimes uneasy relationship with the civil service which lies somewhere on a spectrum between cautious and obstructive, depending on which ministerial memoir you are reading. This is compounded in a young administration by the often strong friendships between some civil servants and their former bosses, now languishing on opposition benches. Ministers need not wonder how that obscure but now embarrassing initiative found its way into the Question Book.

Mistrust of the civil service perhaps finds its most clear expression, again, with Michael Gove. The Tories flagship New Schools policy is not run out of DfE, having been outsourced (complete with 500,000 contract) to Gove's former political aide Rachel Wolf. Under pressure to drive through policy and constrained by a limit on recruitment, it is not surprising ministers would respond with increased attempts to shoe-horn partisans into supposedly non-political roles.

What we are left with is a dishonest compromise. For once, I agree with Tim Montgomerie: David Cameron should lift the ban on political appointments.

Tags: Department for Education, Michael Gove, Special advisers

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