Cardwell is loyal to May and Brokenshire, but does not tell us much about Johnson’s people

28 Nov

The Secret Life of Special Advisers by Peter Cardwell

When Peter Cardwell applied to Fiona Hill, Theresa May’s right-hand woman and in the summer of 2016 suddenly one of the most powerful people in Downing Street, to see if he could become a Special Adviser, he claims he possessed “perhaps the most crucial quality – shamelessness”.

He is wrong about that. Hill took him on, and over the next three and a half years he worked as a SpAd for four different Cabinet ministers, before being summoned to Downing Street in February of this year to be “formally sacked” by the Director of Communications, Lee Cain, who told him: “The Prime Minister no long has confidence in your ability to do your job.”

Cardwell reflects that Boris Johnson is probably “only vaguely aware of my existence”. He is amused that Robbie Gibb, Director of Communications during May’s last two years in office, had not many months before denounced a SpAd who had caused grave annoyance in Number Ten:

“Someone who didn’t play the game. Someone who didn’t stick to the grid. Someone who didn’t keep us informed. Someone who will never set foot in this building again: Lee Cain.”

Since this book was written, Cain has once more left the building, and whether he will ever again set foot there cannot be known.

The reason why Cardwell cannot be called shameless is that he remains loyal to the losing side. He is from Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom where loyalty is a highly esteemed virtue.

Only on page 188 does he confirm that he is a Unionist, who has usually supported the Ulster Unionist Party, now eclipsed (though he does not mention this) by the Democratic Unionists.

Here is Cardwell after Theresa May has wished him “Happy birthday” during the 2017 general election campaign:

“It was a fun moment with a lovely woman, a true public servant and someone who I believe was an excellent Prime Minister despite very trying circumstances.”

The sentiment is admirably unfashionable, but the tone is almost that of John Major. Cardwell has a gaucheness which prevents him from being a good writer. He is, however, a good friend, and forms a particular bond with James Brokenshire, the Cabinet minister for whom he works at the Northern Ireland Office and later at Housing.

Before become a SpAd, Cardwell had spent ten years in broadcast journalism, where at one point Hill offered him Brokenshire as a guest on Newsnight:

“I have a terrible, terrible confession to make… I rejected the offer because I had never heard of him.”

There is nothing terrible about this admission. Cardwell was right to reject Brokenshire as a guest, because Brokenshire is an astoundingly dull performer.

But once he is Brokenshire’s media SpAd, Cardwell becomes “very prickly” about attacks on his boss:

“The press can be merciless, with one particularly poisonous description of James when he was Northern Ireland Secretary suggesting he had ‘the personality of a motorway service station car park’. Ouch.

“The Daily Mail’s sketchwriter Quentin Letts was especially horrible about James. I will not repeat some of the nasty things he wrote in the Mail, but he tweeted in early 2017, ‘Secretary of State James Brokenshire in Northern Ireland today: not so much a statesman as an ink monitor’.”

By early 2019, “for Mayites such as James and me it was bleak”. In the summer of that year, Brokenshire arrives at a decision about the way ahead:

“James, after a lot of thinking and having consulted his three SpAds, had backed Boris for Conservative leader early in the campaign and wrote an excellent op-ed for the Mail on Sunday, although they published only extracts of it, which annoyed  me greatly. To me, it needed to feel like a ‘moment’ when such a May loyalist backed Boris Johnson, and James’s drafted words, which he had sent me to review, were characteristically sincere.”

On become Prime Minister, Johnson sacked Brokenshire, but told him people did sometimes come back into government. In the reshuffle of February 2020, Brokenshire duly came back as Security Minister at the Home Office, so outside the Cabinet.

There is a faint echo in all this of Ferdinand Mount’s defence, in Cold Cream, of Selwyn Lloyd:

“He was used to being patronised. He didn’t care. He was proud of the things he was patronised for being.

“His loyalty was what he was most praised for, but this too was a form of condescension from those who found loyalty a quality of limited value in their own lives. He was loyal to Anthony Eden and never expressed any resentment that he had been led into a course of deceit by that vain, hysterical, serious-minded prima donna (can you be a serious-minded prima donna? Yes, I think you can and Eden certainly was). A few months before Eden married his second wife, the cool and witty Clarissa Churchill, Selwyn had been a guest at a house party given by John Wyndham at Petworth, which included Clarissa. He had been horrified by the way everyone present had said how ghastly Eden was, while Selwyn stuck up loyally for his boss. When the engagement was announced, the others desperately tried to cover their tracks, but Selwyn had no malicious words to swallow,”

In the Tory leadership contest of 1963, Lloyd campaigned energetically and effectively for the surprise winner, Alec Douglas-Home, for he felt, in Mount’s words, that “Home was the only one of them whose judgement was not fatally poisoned by ambition”.

It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that in some future leadership contest, Brokenshire the patronised and disregarded man of government will play a similar role.

If one were contemplating a career as a special adviser, and did not already know what to expect, it would be worth glancing at this book.

There is plenty here about frenetic dealings with the media: nothing much about policy, which at the Northern Ireland Office was in the hands of the vastly more experienced Jonathan Caine.

To say that this account reveals the “secret life” of special advisers is overdoing it. No great secrets are revealed. Most of what happens is trivial, without being particularly amusing.

One gains a sense of the transitoriness of the role of adviser, for as Cardwell says,

“SpAds are political mayflies, lasting on average less than two years in government… Apparently, at the time of my defenestration in February 2020 there were just ten of us, out of some 105 SpAds, who had more than two years’ experience. This was partly due to the fact that in the summer of 2019, when Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, so many SpAds had left, taking with them much experience and expertise.”

This is an inexperienced government, which cast aside the knowledge of how Westminster and Whitehall work which had been accumulated by its predecessors.

On arriving in Downing Street, David Cameron was surrounded by a group of professionals who had acquired, like him, a mastery of technique in the Conservative Research Department – a point which escapes Cardwell in his brief and not very illuminating history of SpAds.

Johnson had no such group around him, pursued a daringly unconventional course and in December 2019 won a famous election victory. Cardwell hails Dominic Cummings as “a strategic genius”, but does not have much to say about how all this happened.

For Cardwell belongs to the May interlude, a period about which nothing brilliant has yet been published.

Profile: Olive, sorry, Oliver Dowden, saviour of the arts, bedrock insider – and unknown to the public

9 Jul

By far the greatest power of a Prime Minister is the power of patronage. He or she decides who to appoint to ministerial posts, and the Government prospers or fails largely as a result of whether these people prove able to rise to the level of events.

In February, Boris Johnson made Oliver Dowden Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

Dowden is unknown to the wider public, and in ConservativeHome’s latest Cabinet league table is buried two-thirds of the way down the list, among a cluster of other ministers who have yet to become household names.

Leading figures in the arts had little faith he would be able to rescue their sector from the disastrous impact of Covid-19, and were getting ready to go mad at him with rage.

Instead of which he and Rishi Sunak astonished the world of the arts, at the start of this week, with a package of support for the arts which the leading figures queued up to praise.

As Charlotte Gill pointed out on ConHome, Dowden had been underestimated.

Here is a minister who knows how to get things done, including the tricky art of persuading the Treasury to part with the necessary funds.

Dowden is a professional politician, indeed a professional man of government: the kind of person at whom it is easy to sneer, but without whom nothing in Whitehall would move.

He succeeds partly because he does not seek to hog the limelight. There was no sense, as he announced the £1.57 billion support package for the arts, that this was being treated as something that would above all redound to the greater glory of the Secretary of State.

In photographs, it never seems this tall, friendly, fair-haired, respectable figure wants to outshine the other people in the picture.

In the words he uses, there is likewise a complete absence of any discernible urge to shine. “He is not an aphorist,” as one of his colleagues conceded, after ConHome remarked on the absence of a single memorable phrase in the Dowden record.

And yet those who know him well insist he is delightful company. One of them warned:

“I am sure you will not depict him as resembling in any way the dreary apparatchik that he might at first glance appear, having spent so much time behind the scenes at the Conservative Research Department and in the Cameron entourage before landing the safe seat that Cecil Parkinson once represented. He has a lightness of touch and charm that resemble Parkinson.

“His Canadian parents-in-law were at first reluctant to see their clever daughter married to an English politician; he soon won them round.

“He greets comments made to him with an infectious little laugh; I think this a most useful habit to have acquired or to be blessed with since birth: it creates an immediate impression of amiability and allows time to consider how best to reply.

“He is interested in bohemian ways without being drawn to participation in them. His best friend in the Research Department at the 2005 election was much given to cycling round London, drunk and naked, during the night.”

The safe seat in question, won by him in 2015 after he had defeated Sunak and others in the final of the contest to select the Conservative candidate, is Hertsmere, on the southern border of Hertfordshire.

In his maiden speech, he spoke with emotion of “the last unspoiled rolling hills of England before the home counties give way to London”, and said he is “absolutely determined to preserve them from soulless urban sprawl so that my children and grandchildren may enjoy them as I have done.”

He touched also on his constituency’s position “at the heart of the British film industry”, thanks to Elstree film studios in Borehamwood. But he went on:

“What characterises Hertsmere, far more than its landscape or its industry, is the character of its people. They get up very early every morning and from Bushey, Potters Bar, Radlett and Borehamwood they cram on to commuter trains or set off along the M25 and the A1. They are hard-working men and women who make sacrifices to provide for themselves, their families and their community. They know that in this life, we do not get something for nothing; we have to work in order to get something out.

“Growing up locally, I was very much imbued with those values. My dad worked in a factory in Watford, my mum at a chemist’s in St Albans. They worked hard and were determined to give me the very best start in life. That started with the excellent education that I received at my local comprehensive school.”

He was born in 1978 and went to Parmiter’s School, founded in 1681 in Bethnal Green and now at Garston, near Watford. Its motto is “Nemo sibi nascitur”, “No one is born unto himself alone”, and from here he won a place to read law at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

Dowden played no part in student politics, and decided not to be a lawyer. He taught English in Japan, had a stint at LLM, a lobbying firm set up by Labour figures close to Gordon Brown, and in 2004 became head of the Political Section in the Conservative Research Department.

Soon after his arrival, one of his colleagues recalls,

“He became known as Olive through a typographical error which he embraced with characteristic good humour. It almost sounds wrong to call him Oliver if you’ve known him of old.”

Another friend from that period said this week:

“I will call him Olive or I will call him Secretary of State, but I will not call him Oliver.”

Dowden, as he will continue to be called here, displayed an early flair for understanding how a story would play out in the press. He could see the weaknesses in both the Labour and the Conservative position, so could operate in an attacking role – spotting, for example, the potential of the cash for honours story to embarrass the Labour Government – and also defensively, briefing ministers on the line to take when they went on programmes such as Any Questions and Question Time.

He is an enormously experienced insider, who has helped prepare four successive leaders – Michael Howard, David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson – for Prime Minister’s Questions.

Cameron relates in his memoirs that in 2009, during the MPs’ expenses scandal,

“I set up an internal scrutiny panel, a so-called Star Chamber, including my aide Oliver Dowden, known as ‘Olive’, who I also called ‘the undertaker’, since he so frequently brought me the bad news.”

Another witness says:

“During the expenses scandal, CRD had to triage some of the cases, taking what The Telegraph was accusing people of and working out the truth. It was a long, gruelling period, relentless, it went on for weeks and it was bleak work, the team being set against itself.”

He became “a bedrock figure”, as one former minister puts it, “stable, sensible, unflappable, extraordinarily decent”, in the group which saw Cameron into Number Ten and then sustained him there, with Dowden as Ed Llewellyn’s deputy.

Few people understand better than Dowden how the government machine works, or fails to work. He is not an ideologue, or a bold political thinker, or a stirring orator, but he has sound judgement and knows how to get things done. As one colleague puts it,

“He’s one of the most impressive people I’ve ever been in a room with officials with. At the end he will establish what has been agreed and what we are going to do.”

As an MP since 2015, “he commutes in like his constituents – he puts in the long hours”. His website shows him defending their interests with tenacity.

In the 2016 EU Referendum he was a Remainer, but in the immediate aftermath he supported Boris Johnson for the leadership, which infuriated Theresa May’s team.

Not until January 2018 was he permitted to take his first step on the ministerial ladder, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office.

In the summer of 2019, Dowden, Sunak and Robert Jenrick interviewed Johnson for an hour at Jenrick’s house, after which they put their names to a joint piece for The Times Red Box, which appeared under the headline:

“The Tories are in deep peril. Only Boris Johnson can save us.”

This endorsement by three junior ministers, none of whom was suspected of maverick tendencies, helped convince many waverers that Johnson was on course for victory. Collectively they had become significant players, and all three of them are now in the Cabinet.

Dowden is only 41. Will he go higher? Lord Lexden, official historian to the Conservative Party and the Carlton Club, says of him:

“I am rather inclined to the view that he may well establish himself as the Rab Butler of his time, indispensable in any Tory government, but without Butler’s hesitancy if the chance of the premiership should arise.”