The trial of Andy Coulson makes it abundantly clear that aides can tarnish the reputation of those they serve. Andrew Blick and George Jones examine the history of aides who have caused trouble for Prime Ministers and, drawing on their recent book, make a series of recommendations about how prime ministers should construct and handle their teams.
In his 1513 work The Prince the Florentine politician Niccolo Machiavelli wrote that ‘upon the character of the persons with whom a prince surrounds himself depends the first impression that is formed of his own ability’. Machiavelli went on to explain that if ‘ministers and counsellors’ prove to be ‘competent and faithful’, then the prince will be regarded as ‘wise’ for choosing people with such qualities and handling them appropriately. But if they fail to display these positive characteristics, ‘then the opinion formed of the prince will not be favourable, because of his want of judgement in their first selection’.
Such considerations have applied to UK prime ministers in their use of personal staff, as the present trial of Andy Coulson, the former Chief Press Secretary to David Cameron at No.10, demonstrates. An aide first appointed in 2007 while Cameron was Leader of the Opposition to help promote a more positive image of the Conservative Party in the media has become a prolonged news story in his own right, damaging the reputation of the Prime Minister and making problems for the government as a whole (or at least the Conservative component of it). Critics will hold that – regardless of Coulson’s innocence or guilt – Cameron should never have risked employing him following his resignation as editor of News of the World. Aides can tarnish the reputations of those they serve.
This tendency was clear in the early eighteenth century during the tenure of the man regarded as the first-ever Prime Minister, Robert Walpole. His staff helped distribute the so-called ‘Secret Service’ money, signed over personally by the king, to pay off journalists and fix elections to the House of Commons. After Walpole fell from office in 1742 a parliamentary ‘Committee of Secrecy’ convened to try to construct a criminal case against him for corruption. It tried to obtain incriminating evidence from his senior aides, but failed. A century later, Francis Bonham, an important political aide to Robert Peel, had to resign his official post in 1845 following revelations about his inappropriate involvement in decisions about the award of railway contracts. The role of assistants to David Lloyd George in the sale of honours – though it was a longstanding practice – had helped contaminate his image by the time he lost power in 1922.
Prime-ministerial staff can become a problem in other ways. Inside the team of Harold Wilson, constant internal battles, often involving his Personal and Political Secretary, Marcia Williams, diverted him from important business and drained his energy. Nigel Lawson resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1989, complaining that Alan Walters – economic adviser at Downing Street to Margaret Thatcher – was publicly undermining him. Internal factions similar to those prevalent in the Wilson era divided No.10 under Gordon Brown.
Yet though they can seem a liability at times, aides to the Prime Minister are indispensible. All premiers have relied on them, each in his or her own way. The job has always been too much to carry out alone. Many difficulties have come about because staff have been exposed doing precisely what prime ministers wanted them to. They are often chosen partly because of personal characteristics that, though useful, can create tension. In many cases premiers deliberately encourage competition within their own teams – Tony Blair specialised in this management technique – leading to friction. Bearing in mind both the essential nature of aides and the potential mishaps, we make a series of recommendations about how prime ministers should construct and handle their teams. We draw on our recent book, At Power’s Elbow: aides to the Prime Minister from Robert Walpole to David Cameron.
- Newly-installed prime ministers need to balance aides with whom they are familiar, have an already-existing bond of trust and who are attuned to their needs, with aides who can provide continuity and stability. Prime ministers should select as aides people to link them to the groups whose resources they need to be effective, both those inside the government machine and those outside who command political resources. Prime ministers’ teams should help them achieve their objectives.
- When they arrive at No.10, prime ministers may wish to bring with them teams they have already assembled. If they are coming directly from opposition (like Tony Blair in 1997 and David Cameron in 2010), they will probably appoint as special advisers and to other posts some staff drawn from beyond Whitehall, who they identified during their campaign for power, and may have helped them attain it. These aides can bring an important party-political perspective, and outside knowledge and contacts. If prime ministers come directly from another ministerial post (like Gordon Brown in 2007), the existing personal team they bring with them could well include both career officials and special advisers who were already assisting them in their previous government office.
- But prime ministers should balance such ‘crony’ appointments by establishing good working relationships with the permanent civil servants already in place at No.10 when they arrive there. Members of this latter group will be essential in getting the system to work for the prime minister.
- Whether aides are previous allies of the premier imported from elsewhere, or inherited from the previous regime, they must work together as a team; and promote cohesion within the wider government. Factions within No.10 are to be avoided; and it is better for No.10 as a whole not to behave as a faction itself within government. The prime-ministerial team should not be a large bureaucratic department which can distance prime ministers from those working for them, reducing their personal impact.
We believe these suggestions would be of use to an aspiring or new premier. Yet, however careful they are, prime ministers and their staff can expect problems. They operate at the centre of government, where pressures from politics and from government meet, and there is too much at stake for them to be complacent.
Further reading: The ‘Department of the Prime Minister’ – should it continue?
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Andrew Blick is Lecturer in Politics & Contemporary History at King’s College, London. He was formerly Senior Research Fellow in the Centre for Political and Constitutional Studies in ICBH, and Senior Research Fellow at the Democratic Audit, University of Liverpool.
George Jones is Emeritus Professor of Government at the London School of Economics, where he was on the staff in the Government Department for many years. Amongst a range of research interests, including UK local government, Professor Jones is a leading expert on the evolution of 10 Downing Street and the workings of the British core executive.