21 Apr 2011

Spads you like: Osborne’s Treasury advisers

Chancellor George Osborne is keen to promote progressive economic policies. But are such egalitarian impulses reflected in the backgrounds of his special advisers at the Treasury?

We look at George Osborne's special advisers at the Treasury (Getty)

Some of the best-known British politicians over the past decade were special advisers (or “Spads”) before they became MPs.

Labour leader Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls, for example, were both at the Treasury in the late 1990s, several years before they entered parliament. Ed’s elder brother David was head of the prime minister’s policy unit until he was elected in 2001.

So a look at the coalition government’s list of Treasury special advisers might offer some pointers as to who will feature in the next intake of young Conservative MPs.

Official Cabinet Office documents detailing the names and salaries of Spads in all government departments reveal that the Chancellor employs four special advisers. Two of them, Ramesh Chhabra and Poppy Mitchell-Rose earn £60,000 a year. The other two, Rupert Harrison and Eleanor Shawcross, earn, respectively, £80,000 per year and between £52,215 and £69,266.

Pre-eminent among the four Treasury Spads as chief of staff to Chancellor George Osborne, Rupert Harrison has enjoyed an apparently seamless progression from the playing fields of Eton to the academic groves of Magdalen College, Oxford, and thence to the corridors of power on London’s Horse Guards Road.

A former Eton head boy, Harrison doubtless comes into frequent contact with fellow Old Etonian Spad Ed “Steady Eddie” Llewellyn, chief of staff to David Cameron (also an Old Etonian).

And in addition to Chancellor George Osborne, Harrison numbers among his political masters the Conservative peer Lord Sassoon (education: Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford), presently commercial secretary to the Treasury.

Harrison went up to Magdalen – alma mater to other notable coalition politicians, including George Osborne, Nick Clegg, William Hague and Jeremy Hunt – to study physics but switched to PPE, achieving first-class honours.

His tutors included Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband’s chief strategist and the man who ran his successful Labour leadership campaign. Despite their political differences, Harrison and Wood, who became a Labour peer last year, remain friends.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has provided a launchpad for the careers of several high-profile economic experts, including Andrew Dilnot, and the BBC’s Evan Davis and Stephanie Flanders. Rupert Harrison was a research fellow there between 2002 and 2006.

His time at the IFS coincided with that of Robert Chote, director of the institute between 2002 and 2010. An earlier Who Knows Who speculated that Chancellor George Osborne’s choice of Chote to lead the Office for Budget Responsibility in the autumn of 2010 might have been swayed by the advocacy of Rupert Harrison.

Harrison left the IFS in 2006 to become the chancellor’s chief economic adviser. A year later he co-authored an article in the Economic Journal predicting that Labour’s proposed 2011 National Insurance hike would increase unemployment by 23,000.

That article came back to haunt him in 2010 when Financial Times Economics Editor Chris Giles pointed out that this was far fewer than the 57,000 jobs the Conservative manifesto claimed would be lost in small and medium-sized companies alone as a result of Labour’s proposed NI increase.

Such embarrassments notwithstanding, Harrison remains Chancellor George Osborne’s key aide. As well as last autumn’s spending review, he was involved (alongside former banker and Old Etonian Oliver Letwin) in negotiations with UK banks over the Project Merlin initiative.

Outside the Treasury hothouse, Harrison is said to move in glamorous circles. He numbers actress Rosamund Pike and actor Simon Woods (Eton, Magdalen College) among his friends. In 2004 he married Joanna Orpin, another Magdalen contemporary.

In October 2009 the Telegraph ranked Rupert Harrison 39th in a list of the 100 most influential right-wingers in the UK. That ranking will surely have risen as he and the Treasury team prepare for the first full coalition budget.

At least one Etonian connection links Rupert Harrison with Eleanor Shawcross, his fellow economic adviser at the Treasury, with reports saying she numbers neo-conservative author Douglas Murray (Eton, Magdalen College) among her friends. Murray, an outspoken critic of Islamic extremism, was allegedly banned by the LSE from chairing a debate on the subject in January 2009.

Eleanor Shawcross’s family is already heavy with connections to Britain’s post-war political establishment. Her grandfather was Nuremberg prosecutor Hartley Shawcross, while her father, the Eton-educated William Shawcross, made his name as a Sunday Times journalist. In recent years he has suffered criticism from some quarters for what was seen as unjustifiably favourable biography of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch.

Eleanor Shawcross is also half-sister to Conrad Shawcross, the artist son of William Shawcross and art critic Marina Warner.

Educated at St Paul’s School for Girls (George Osborne, her political boss, was educated at the male equivalent) and University College, Oxford, where she read modern history, the 27-year-old Shawcross was seconded to the 2008 mayoral campaign of Boris Johnson (Eton, Oxford) from high-profile management consultants BCG. She was subsequently appointed as an adviser to George Osborne, then shadow chancellor.

Since the coalition came to power in 2010, Eleanor Shawcross has advised ministers on financial services, business and growth.

Chancellor George Osborne’s two other special advisers, Poppy Mitchell-Rose and Ramesh Chhabra, appear to break the Treasury special adviser mould, neither having studied at Eton or Oxford.

Mitchell-Rose, though, was educated at Tony Blair’s old school, Fettes College, sometimes dubbed “the Eton of the north”. She went on to study at Durham University, while Chhabra, the chancellor’s press spokesman, graduated from Hull University in 2002.

Both Mitchell-Rose and Chhabra have served in the past as media advisers to prominent Tories. Mitchell-Rose, who worked previously as a journalist, helped Liam Fox during his time as shadow health secretary, while Chhabra served as press aide to David Davis during the latters term as shadow home secretary.

Commenting on Davis’s abrasive style, the New Statesman described Chhabra as “possibly one of Britain’s longest suffering men” and predicted he would end up in the House of Lords. In fact, Chhabra’s one recorded flirtation with frontline politics to date was when he stood – unsuccessfully – to become a councilor in Kingston-Upon-Hull. His present duties at the Treasury include serving as the chancellor’s spokesman.