Oh dear, Dom has the alchemist’s gift of turning hard rain into The acid variety. The replacement of Mark Sedwell as National Security Advisor by David Frost is not a disaster, but an embarrassment. The intervention by Theresa May today was devastating. And will rattle number 10. Perhaps Chicken Boy, (Cain but not able) who ‘runs’ the Tory comms will provide some great generic tweets for Pavlov’s dogs in time for PMQs tomorrow. ‘Does my right honourable friend agree with me and the overwhelming majority of my constituents in Tongue Up The Anus, that Mr Frost is an exemplary public servant and will make them sleep easy in their beds tonight’. (Cheers. Waving of order papers and mind boggling lick spittledom’).
I am sure that Frost is a capable and decent public servant. But he has publicly proclaimed political views. This is unwise. I really don’t care whether he is a Remainer a Brexiteer or trans political. I just want him to give competent, independent advice on security to protect our country to the Prime Minister. Or should I have written, ‘to protect our country from the Prime Minister’? This is yet another own goal from the key striker in the Premier League of own goals.
And this is the problem. There is a weird inferiority complex, by even the most educated of people, that if someone is a classicist, can give little quotes in Latin and Greek, they have a phenomenal intellect. Well, it’s bollocks. The military and the spooks are horrified at the appointment of Frost. It would be like Corbyn appointing that ‘diamond’ Maxine Peake to the job.
I really can’t tire of saying it, but Johnson isn’t up to the job.
But let’s have a little historical perspective to put this shit show into context.There is nothing new for seemingly omnipotent and omnipresent advisors to indispense themselves to a Prime Minister. It is an ancient tradition. Often their infallible genius converts omnipotence into omnishambles. And some are exposed as just reckless chancers and are exiled to California that dumping ground of wacky ideas and inflated egos. How is Steve Hilton?
The grand daddy of them all was Sir Horace Wilson of whom Lord Woolton remarked, ‘found himself enjoying tremendous power, in fact, a power unequalled by any member of the cabinet except the Prime Minister’.
Jock Colville, later to become Churchill’s private secretary, was less generous, ‘he became to believe himself as infallible as the Prime Minister thought him to be’.
Wilson was Neville Chamberlain’s fixer, policy muse, minder, confidante, lightening rod and crutch. Which means that he was despised and feared in equal measure. He accompanied Chamberlain to Munich to negotiate with Hitler, prompting Harold Nicholson to remark that they had, ‘the bright faithfulness of two curates entering a pub for the first time’.
It didn’t go well.
Churchill booted him out on his first day in office.
Nowadays, most SPADS work behind the scenes. They tend to be attached to their minister as advisors and friends. They follow their ministers from department to department and eventually into the graveyard of political road kill. They have to be approved by the Prime Minister and serve at his will. They are regulated, but not as much as civil servants. Their role is to convert party graffiti and fag packet promises into policy. There were ten SPADS in 1979, twenty five in 1987 and now there are one hundred and nine. At Number 10 you can’t swing a truncheon without hitting one.
The ones that I have met over the years from all parties have been super intelligent, personable and on top of their game. Many end up in Parliament, some in the Cabinet or like David Cameron, Prime Minister. Apart from those whom envious politicians feel unsettled by and zealous journalists see as fair game, most are unknown to the wider public. And that is how it should be.
The sadly missed Frank Dobson, like many of his generation, despised the spin doctors who had taken control of his party, ‘they are like poisoners. There are famous poisoners and there are successful poisoners. But there are no famous, successful poisoners’.
Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell might disagree.
Tony Blair had observed with horror what happens when the Downing Street operation fails to function effectively by watching the decline of the Major government as it expired with a sigh. He decided to centralise power and beef up the operation. It didn’t always go to plan.
Harold Wilson, that master tactician and ring master of party management developed his own kitchen cabinet with people whom he could trust. Marcia Williams the gate keeper and Joe Haines who ran the media operation, were feared and despised by the usual suspects, the cabinet and the press. I remember a meeting with Margaret Thatcher in the Prime Minister’s office behind the Speaker’s Chair. She pointed an accusatory finger at an alcove in a corner and whispered almost in awe, ‘and that is where Marcia used to sit’.
As a rule of thumb those advisors who are very close to Prime Ministers are resented by those who are elected and slithered up the greasy pole. I can think of three exceptions, Charles Powell and Stephen Sherbourne under Thatcher, and Angie Hunter under Blair. The reason is simple. They were all approachable and were devoid of arrogance and entitlement. Thatcher’s judgement began to slide after the departure of Sherbourne.
But Thatcher did have some weird people orbiting Downing Street. The Bowler hatted Christopher Monckton who was never shy in offering a view which would unsettle any lively box of frogs and and that nasty, straw hatted old man, Alfred Sherman, whose only purpose I could discern was to frighten the crows. Well, he certainly frightened me.
Yet the only advisor of this generation that people remember was Sir Alan Walters and his role in the resignation of Nigel Lawson.
But let us not forget the sterling work of Charlie Whelan, Gordon Brown’s press officer who would issue attack briefs with a smile and a pint to thirsty hacks in the Red Lion. As they were mostly aimed at Blairite ministers he had to go. As did Brown’s delightfully demonic fixer Damian MacBride. I like them both.
A mention in despatches too for Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy. They kept Mrs May on the rails, mostly the live one, but nearly trashed the 2017 General Election. Comedy gold.
Churchill summed up politics rather well, ‘it is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year. And have the ability afterwards to explain why it didn’t happen’.
That is the role of the special advisor. It is best from the shadows. Accountability means that their political masters take the credit or carry the can. By all means let them be obscene. But not heard.
At the moment Cummings is obscene. But a time will come when he is not heard.