Government advisers – a fast-track role to resignation

Most senior advisers in government end up overshadowing the role they were hired to do.

Government advisers – a fast-track role to resignation Getty Images

And so he is no more, at least in the sense of being at the heart of government.

After his elastic interpretation of the lockdown rules, Dominic Cummings’ longevity always looked to be one screw short of a shoogly peg. The Prime Minister now has time to contemplate and ask ‘was it all worth it?’.

At the heart of such appointments is a natural instinct by leaders to want to exert control of government in the broadest sense and to drive policy and communication in particular.

The reality is that such appointments, more often than not, hard wire institutional infighting and end up overshadowing the role individuals are hired to do. It was ever thus.

Harold Wilson’s kitchen cabinet of political secretary Marcia Williams, media spokesman Joe Haines and policy supremo Bernard Donoughue was never a harmonious trinity.

Haines and Donoughue despaired that Williams enjoyed an almost unbridled authority and exerted a hold on the Prime Minister. It made for a de-stabilising time between Labour’s election victory in February 1974 until Wilson’s resignation as PM in March 1976.

Exhausted, showing signs of paranoia and with his legendary memory fading, Wilson’s legacy was badly tarnished by his resignation honours list which many put down to his political secretary’s influence.

In the interests of accuracy it is important to record that many minsters, and indeed the former editor of The Times William Rees-Mogg, viewed Lady Falkender as she became as a positive influence born of an acute political acumen.

When Margaret Thatcher was deposed as Prime Minister it was an obstinate refusal to change course on the poll tax that greased her slide from office. However, her premiership was engulfed in instability for well over a year.

It started in 1989 with the resignation of Nigel Lawson as Chancellor. The reason: her economic adviser Alan Walters held more sway with her over the issue of exchange rate policy. The adviser stayed, the Chancellor departed, but the seeds of discontent were well and truly sown.

Tony Blair’s premiership was the slickest in presentational terms in recent decades in part because his communications director Alastair Campbell had a sharp journalistic eye and a sensitive antennae in anticipating and managing the trouble that afflicts all governments.

As the two men thought alike, Campbell did not need to burden his boss with every action he took as he knew he would get his backing.

New Labour is forever associated with spin, which is unfair as just about every government obsesses about the message and how to get it across.

Their time in office coincided with a wider debate about transparency in decision making. A pre-occupation with the presentation of policy didn’t play well with a media who had tilted from a natural suspicion in what they were told to a cynicism which defines the relationship template to this day.

Blair was not immune from the curse of advisers, even if they tended to belong to other ministers. Until the Iraq War and a revolt over tuition fees, the most destabilising factor in his premiership was the relationship with his Chancellor Gordon Brown, whom Campbell had witheringly assessed as “psychologically flawed”.

Brown’s choice of advisers speaks to a desire to enforce. The clubbable Charlie Whelan was steeped in the gossip of the Labour world but he was just too clubbable for his own good, having to resign after allegedly leaking information.

Brown also appointed Damian McBride as Downing Street press secretary. McBride resigned after it was revealed he had discussed the idea of smearing opponents on the web.

David Cameron turned to former News of The World Editor Andy Coulson to be his director of communications in the full knowledge that Coulson resigned from the redtop following the conviction of one of his reporters for phone hacking. That scandal followed him to Number 10 and eventually made his position untenable.

So why do top politicians hire so many people who all take the path to resignation?

Some are deluded by the notion that a communications chief can alter or even control a narrative. In reality, the 24-hour news cycle is not only uncontrollable but largely unmanageable. The best that can be hoped for is that your position is given a fair shout.

If the adviser is a policy wonk then they will come up against resistance from civil servants and other ministers and their advisers in a never-ending wrestle over who controls which turf.

Boris Johnson is not a details man, he is not endowed with a grasp for deep thinking on policy formulation and implementation. The departure of his trusted lieutenant will leave a vacuum.

The worry for the Prime Minister is that it will be filled by another minister who has more than a passing interest in taking up residence in 10 Downing Street.