ANYBODY taking a cursory look at the news both north and south of the Border in the past fortnight might quite reasonably wonder whether ministerial special advisers are more trouble than they are worth.
Last week, we had the briefing against the mother of a disabled child by Campbell Gunn – one of First Minister Alex Salmond’s small army of spads (as people who work in the political world refer to them).
Just days before, Home Secretary Theresa May’s spad Fiona Cunningham had to resign for briefing against Education Secretary Michael Gove.
This week began with Mr Gove’s former spad Dominic Cummings publicly briefing against Prime Minister David Cameron.
Go back further, and we have Jeremy Hunt’s spad at the Department for Culture, Adam Smith, being forced to resign over briefing the Murdochs about the Sky deal. And in the week Iraq blew up again, we recall Tony Blair’s spad of spads, Alastair Campbell, and his role in the “dodgy dossier” which took this country to war.
As a “profession” – as far as it can be called that – the spad looks like a political nightmare. But who are these people who sow mayhem and destruction?
In truth, they are civil servants appointed temporarily on political grounds with a licence to act politically. Every senior minister in Westminster and Holyrood has at least one, and they spend more time with their spads than they do their spouses.
Spads can be policy advisers, a link with the press, bag carriers or a combination of those things. Ministers learn to rely on them more than anybody else, and let them go reluctantly.
Even when they have supposedly left, the bond is so great it is questionable whether these people ever stop serving their political bosses. So when somebody like Mr Cummings attacks the Prime Minister, you wonder if he was doing it for his own purposes or to help his former master.
Both serving and past spads can act as a firewall for a minister. In this sense, one of their most important duties is to take the bullet for their political master so the minister does not have to resign. This seemed to be the case with Ms Cunningham’s resignation this month and Mr Smith’s in 2012. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt survived as a result.
And this is where Alex Salmond has perhaps made a mistake in not forcing Mr Gunn to resign. Had he done so, he would have distanced himself from the actions of a spad who has gone too far. By holding on, Mr Salmond maintains the link between himself and the now notorious briefing, and the poisonous political culture it came from.