By Izzy Harris
Dominic Cummings’ breach of lockdown made many people question the power and accountability of this political aide. However, we must recognise that this issue is not specific to Cummings nor the current administration. The power of aides has increased dramatically in recent governments.
In the financial year 2018-19, special advisers cost the taxpayer a total of £9.6 million. But what is this paying for? Aides receive a salary between £95,000 and £145,000 a year, their role is to advise and support ministers with policy, the media, and politics. They are sometimes specialists in a policy area of a minister’s department, they undertake long-term policy planning, write speeches, liaise with party representatives, the media, and interest groups. Political aides arguably politicise the policy process and diminish the role of civil servants. However, they can also be seen as an essential ‘third element’ to the executive, representing the views of ministers in policymaking.
The role of an advisor has formerly been used by governments to cultivate political talent, Ed Balls and Ed Milliband went on to become MPs following their stints as special advisors. However, this role developed under Tony Blair as aides became more powerful, his Director of Communications and Strategy Alistair Campbell was described as ‘the real deputy Prime Minister’. Although his main focus was the media, he also had power over the governments political strategy. This is not dissimilar to the Rasputin style caricature which has emerged to describe Cummings’ power over Boris Johnson as his ‘chief adviser’. Following the Durham drive scandal, a senior Conservative MP sent a memo to backbench MPs stating that speaking out against Cummings was a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. This shows the untouchable position of Cummings and the Prime Minister’s reliance on him. This is evidencing a lack of accountability for the aide.
There have been other scandals involving political aides and Cummings is not the first adviser to have experienced significant power. In 2001, Jo More, an advisor to the Minister for Transport, Local Government and Regions kept her job following a leaked email suggesting that the department should use the 9/11 attacks to ‘bury’ bad news. Theresa May’s aides Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy were forced to resign as they were blamed for campaign failures in the 2017 snap election. Nick Timothy was previously known for pushing May’s policy in a confrontational manner and May was given an ultimatum by MPs to sack Timothy or face a leadership challenge. This could show how aides are accountable to elected MPs as May was pushed to sack hers. However, Cummings has been able to sustain his power despite discontent in the party and multiple scandals. A Downing Street source described him as making Timothy look like ‘Mary Poppins’. Sir Rodger Gale a Conservative party MP described Cummings as an ‘unelected, foul-mouthed oath’ following an incident where he allegedly drunkenly shouted at Jeremy Corbyn challenging him to an election. He is also still involved in an unfair dismissal claim after sacking and ‘frogmarching’ a former aide out of Downing Street. This behaviour shows a transformation in the power and role of political aides.
The role of political aides has developed from being research and administration focused to the wide and unspecified brief given to Cummings as a ‘chief adviser’. Even if the role of the political aide was originally intended to help the government gain expertise and fill a gap in political advice that is not provided by the civil service, the scandals show a change which has enabled unaccountable figures to gain far too much power in government.
Image: Ninian Reid via Flickr