24 May 2012

Adam Smith, Jeremy Hunt, and the fall of the ‘spad’

As Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s former special adviser Adam Smith prepares to give evidence at the Leveson inquiry, we look at the rise and public fall of the “spad”.

Ahead of James Murdoch's appearance at the Leveson inquiry on 24 April, Andy Davies, Channel 4 News home affairs correspondent, wondered whether the former News International CEO's evidence

Ahead of James Murdoch’s appearance at the Leveson inquiry on 24 April, Andy Davies, Channel 4 News home affairs correspondent, wondered whether the former News International CEO’s evidence would prove embarrassing to politicians.

One month on, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s career hangs in the balance, while his special adviser, Adam Smith, announced his resignation on the morning of 25 April, admitting that his contact with the Murdoch-controlled News Corporation “went too far”.

The contact Smith referred to was Frederic Michel, News Corporation’s director of public affairs. Michel met regularly with the special adviser and exchanged a significant number of emails with him.

Mr Murdoch’s evidence to the inquiry had revealed the scale of the relationship between the political classes and his family’s media empire.

Overstepping the mark

At issue on 24 April was the controversial bid by News Corporation to take full ownership of the satellite broadcaster BSkyB. A tranche of the emails released to coincide with that day’s hearing were between Frederic Michel and James Murdoch, his boss at the time, detailing the former’s conversations with Jeremy Hunt, with members of Hunt’s team, and with people close to Business Secretary Vince Cable.

They reveal that Michel enjoyed frequent communications with Jeremy Hunt and Adam Smith, even before Hunt assumed responsibility for the BSkyB bid following the business secretary’s secretly recorded revelation that he had “declared war” on Rupert Murdoch. Indeed, Smith and Michel dined together as early as May 2010, shortly after the formation of the coalition government.

On 25 April, the day of Smith’s resignation, Hunt admitted to the House of Commons that, in the course of the contacts between Smith and News Corporation, “the volume and tone of these communications were clearly not appropriate in a quasi-judicial process… The contacts overstepped the mark.”

Smith’s own resignation note admitted the same. “I appreciate that my activities at times went too far and have, taken together, created the perception that News Corporation had too close a relationship with the department,” he wrote.

It remains to be seen whether Smith’s comments at the Leveson inquiry on Thursday maintain the distinction – which both he and Jeremy Hunt have claimed – between his own views, as expressed to Frederic Michel, and those of his former political master.

Spad power

Beloved of ministers but often regarded with suspicion by civil servants and the public, special advisers – or spads – have become one of the most powerful political classes.

The fact that Ed Balls, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and George Osborne were all former spads gives an insight into the kind of influence they can wield.
The rise of the spad is often linked with New Labour, but they have been around since the 1960s. Spads are “temporary civil servants” whose salaries are paid by the taxpayer and whose vague job description is to “assist a minister of the crown after being selected for the appointment by that minister personally”.
Traditionally, spads were policy experts, but their role has increasingly shifted towards handling media relations.

In opposition, both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats expressed unease at the increasing numbers of spads surrounding Labour ministers. The coalition manifesto promised to “put a limit on the number of special advisers”, and the new government was as good as its word, changing the ministerial code so that cabinet members could now have just one spad instead of two.

But the change was vaguely worded, with some allowed more and exceptions to the rule allowed with the prime minister’s approval. That could explain why the number of spads has failed to fall significantly since the 2010 election.
In the last days of Gordon Brown’s rule, there were 78 special adviser posts. A month after David Cameron came to power, that fell to 68 posts, with five of them vacant.

Eighty-two spads and counting

In April this year the number of government spads hit 82 – passing Labour’s total – but the headcount has since dropped with the resignation of Adam Smith and the departure from Downing Street last week of Mr Cameron’s key policy adviser, Steve Hilton, for a sabbatical.

Since May 2010, Mr Cameron has increased his circle of advisers from 18 to 20, but it’s the deputy prime minister who has splashed out the most. Nick Clegg’s circle of personal advisers has grown from four to five, but a further 11 people now report to him as well. Most other ministers have one or two advisers, but the foreign secretary, William Hague, and Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the House of Lords, have three each.

Two of Mr Cameron’s aides – Andrew Cooper and Craig Oliver – earn more than Nick Clegg at £140,000 a year each.

Adam Smith is, of course, not the first spad to get dragged out of the shadows and into the headlines over an apparent error of judgement. Other trusted aides forced to fall on their swords over the years include Damian McBride, who quit over allegations he was planning to smear Conservative MPs, and fellow Labour spin doctor Jo Moore, notorious for nominating 9/11 as “a very good day to get out anything we want to bury”.

Until Mr Smith quit over his relationship with News International lobbyists, the most famous coalition spad scalp had been that of News of the World editor turned top Cameron aide Andy Coulson, forced to quit when the extent of phone hacking at the tabloid was revealed.