The seemingly inexorable rise of the special political adviser

This post first appeared on the Democratic Audit blog in December 2018.


Every year since 2010, usually at around this time of year, the Government publishes a list of special advisers and their salaries. The latest data release, which took place yesterday, revealed another rise in the number of these highly-paid political appointees.

Special advisers are temporary civil servants employed by government to provide political advice to Ministers. Their roles vary considerably from providing media advice to policy expertise but, unlike permanent civil servants, special advisers are not required to be politically impartial. As political appointees, special advisers generally leave office when a government changes and new governments bring their own advisers, many of whom will have been employed by the party when in opposition.

The use of political advisers by governments is not a new phenomenon, but the number and role of special advisers has expanded considerably in recent years. The most significant expansion followed the election of the Labour government in 1997. Through 18 years of opposition and particularly in the run-up to the 1997 election, Labour had developed a large cadre of advisers and, in particular, media strategists whose services they wished to retain. Following the 1997 election, many of these individuals found themselves working alongside Ministers and civil servants and in certain circumstances were even given the authority to issue instructions to civil servants.

There has been some movement towards regularising the work of special advisers in recent years. On appointment special advisers become employees of the civil service, rather than the party. As such they are covered by the Civil Service code and in 2001 the Cabinet Office produced a separate code of conduct for special advisers. The code of conduct describes special advisers as ‘a critical part of the team supporting Ministers’ but also suggests that their appointment may help to protect the civil service from accusations of politicisation:

They add a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to Ministers while reinforcing the political impartiality of the permanent Civil Service by distinguishing the source of political advice and support. Special advisers should be fully integrated into the functioning of government. They are part of the team working closely alongside civil servants to deliver Ministers’ priorities. They can help Ministers on matters where the work of government and the work of the government party overlap and where it would be inappropriate for permanent civil servants to become involved. They are appointed to serve the Prime Minister and the Government as a whole, not just their appointing Minister.

Government transparency and special advisers

In opposition the Conservative Party was critical of Labour’s use of special advisers. The Conservative Party manifesto for the 2010 general election promised to reduce the cost of government and to make government more accountable and transparent. This included an unequivocal commitment to ‘put a limit on the number of special advisers and protect the impartiality of the civil service.’ This commitment to reducing special adviser numbers was repeated in the Coalition Programme for Government.

The special adviser data release is an admirable example of openness in government. Previous governments had also provided data on the employment of special advisers, but these had generally come in response to parliamentary questions. The first special adviser data release in June 2010 provided a model which has been followed on an annual basis since. It included the names of all special advisers then in post, their pay band and, in the case of the most well-paid special advisers, their actual salary.

The timing of the data release has not, however, been ideal in terms of encouraging scrutiny. The date of the release has varied but there has been a tendency to issue the data on a day when Parliament is going into recess or, in some cases, when Parliament is not sitting. Every year since 2014, including the current year, the data has been released on or just before Parliament rose for Christmas. Issuing the data just before a recess means that the release is often buried in a flurry of other announcements, it may also reduce the opportunity for uncomfortable parliamentary questions about the Government’s use of special advisers.

The inexorable rise in the number of special advisers

The possibility of uncomfortable parliamentary questions is perhaps enhanced by the seemingly inexorable rise in the numbers of special advisers and also the, not inconsiderable, salaries attached to some of these posts.

The total number of special advisers certainly increased considerably under Labour, almost doubling from 38 in the final year of the Major government to 70 at the end of Labour’s first year in power. The total number of special advisers under Labour peaked at 84 in 2005. Following the election of the coalition government in 2010 there was a slight fall in the number of special advisers, but this soon began to rise. Despite promising to reduce numbers, by 2013 the number of special advisers employed by the coalition government had surpassed Labour’s peak and kept on rising.

Although the numbers fell again following the 2015 general election they have once again begun to rise. This year’s release reveals that 99 individuals are currently employed as special advisers, although 3 of these work part-time. There are currently more special advisers than at any point under Labour and almost as many as during the highest point of the coalition government.

Although the number of special advisers employed by the coalition government can, in part, be explained by the need to provide advisers for both parties in the coalition, this does not account for all of the additional numbers. By the final year of the coalition there were a total of 20 special advisers supporting the Deputy Prime-Minister, Nick Clegg and the other fourteen Liberal Democrat Ministers. However, the total number individuals employed as special advisers had by this point risen to 103, with 83 of those supporting Conservative Ministers.

Other more significant and long-term factors in the rise in special adviser numbers are the increase in size of the Government and also the concentration of advisers in Downing Street. There is no statutory limit on the number of special advisers, but the Ministerial Code allows for the appointment of two special advisers to each Cabinet Minister and one to any other Minister attending Cabinet. The size of the Cabinet has grown under Theresa May, there are currently 23 full Cabinet Ministers and a further 6 Ministers attending. Moreover, some Ministers are clearly exceeding their allocation. There are at present five Secretaries of State with three special advisers while the Home Secretary has four. Interestingly, in the last year, the number of special advisers in the Whips’ Office has doubled from two to four. Moreover, there are no limitations on the number of advisers allocated to the Prime Minister. Since the late 1990s around a third of all special advisers have been located in Number 10, although this has also increased since 2010. Half of this year’s increase in special adviser numbers can be attributed to advisers appointed by Number 10.

Special advisers in context

Perhaps wary of the potential for criticism the Government also now provides some contextual data with the annual special adviser data release. In addition to the list of advisers and salaries it notes that while there are 99 special advisers working in government, there are a total of 430,075 civil servants working across the country. It also notes that the total cost of special advisers at £8.1million per calendar year, is only 0.05% of the total civil service budget. This cost is also compared to the £9.8million of state funding which is provided through Short Money to support opposition parties with seats in the House of Commons, and the £1million of Cranbourne Money which supports opposition parties in the House of Lords.

This is certainly interesting contextual data although it does allow for a number of other conclusions. The number of special advisers is indeed tiny when compared to the massed ranks of civil servants, but the reason why parties in government have not historically relied upon special advisers, is precisely because they have been able to draw on the considerable resources of the civil service. Similarly, in relation to the funding provided to opposition parties, this is designed to allow opposition parties to be able to carry out their parliamentary business, in order to provide effective scrutiny of the government. It is paid to opposition parties and not the government, because opposition parties do not have the resources available to the Government. While the data provided in the current release indicates that funding for opposition parties is slightly more than the total budget for special advisers, opposition parties receive no other state support, while governments are able to draw on the support both of special advisers and the civil service.

Moreover, it is very difficult to avoid the fact that special advisers are very highly paid individuals, operating at the higher levels of the civil service in Whitehall. While there are considerable drawbacks to being a special adviser, not least job-insecurity, they are considerably better paid than most civil servants and in many cases than most Members of Parliament. On the basis of the figures provided in the current release, the average salary for a special adviser is more than twice the average salary for the other 430,075 civil servants, while 22 special advisers currently earn more than the current basic salary for an MP of £77,379.

The growth in numbers, cost and influence of special advisers has been a source of considerable concern for some time. Several inquiries have recommended a cap on special adviser numbers and opposition parties have often been critical of their use. Yet in government no party has felt able to arrest the trend begun by Labour in 1997. At a time when the impartiality of the permanent civil service is frequently being brought into question, some attention might justifiably be focused on the impact of this small, yet ever-expanding, group of highly-paid political appointees.

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The pastoral role of the Party Whips

This post first appeared on the PSA Parliaments Group blog on 7 November 2018.


In a recent interview in The Sunday Times, the Conservative MP, Andrew Griffiths, discussed the circumstances which led him to send a series of sexually explicit text messages to two female bar workers in his constituency. Newspaper revelations about his sexual misconduct prompted Griffiths’ resignation earlier this year as Minister for Small Businesses and may yet see his expulsion from the Conservative Party.

Whatever the unsavoury circumstances of his actions, Griffiths’ interview also revealed the central role played by the government whips office in providing support for the errant MP and ensuring he sought treatment for his deteriorating mental condition as the story of his sexual misconduct broke. In the interview, Griffiths claims to have contemplated suicide following the public revelations about his behaviour. Two things, he claims, saved his life. The first, understandably, was the impact such a course of action would have on his wife and child. The second, he claimed, was the Chief Whip, ‘who contacted parliament’s doctor and got me into hospital.’

The role of party whips in providing pastoral support for Members of Parliament is not widely appreciated. The common perception of the government whip is of the parliamentary enforcer, ensuring, by fair means or foul, although perhaps more often the latter, that MPs toe the party line. This is a view epitomised by Francis Urquart in Michael Dobbs’ parliamentary thriller, House of Cards. Although Urquart is undoubtedly a caricature, he does have some basis in reality. Long-serving MPs will occasionally provide stomach-churning stories of the whips on the offensive. In his guide for new members, How to be an MP, the soon to retire Labour MP, Paul Flynn, observes that:

… frightening tales are whispered about the overpowering bullying by the honourable thugs of yesterday. I witnessed a cowering, tearful young MP pinned to a wall of the ‘No’ lobby by the fat gut of a sixteen stone whip yelling his charm offensive message: ‘I have two words to say to you – fucking coward’. The whip then waddled off to share the same potent words with half a dozen other Tories who had disobeyed the whips’ instructions. (p.117)

Although academic accounts have tended to focus more on the managerial role of the whips, in his 2002 book, Revolts and Rebellions, Philip Cowley observed that coercion was still a feature of their work:

The whips can (and did) make life less pleasant for the troublesome. They can (and did) deny places on the more prestigious select committees, deny time away from the House, deny time for overseas trips, deny promotion, deny better office space and so on. (p.151)

The whips could also Cowley claims , ‘revert to good old-fashioned physical bullying at times’, quoting one a Labour MP who described the whips as ‘extremely unpleasant’. ‘When I say they bully you, I really mean physically bully you.’

However, as both Flynn and Cowley make clear the role of the whips is more diverse than this and may also be changing. In recent years the election of select committee chairs and members has, for example, eroded the whips’ powers of patronage; while concerns about bullying in Parliament may well serve to prevent a repeat of the excesses of previous generations of whips. Moreover, the whips have always had a role which extended beyond the application of the stick and the distribution of carrots. Many academic studies have emphasised the whips’ role in managing business in parliament, working across parties to ensure the smooth passage of business and supporting MPs in the chamber.

Others, including current and former whips, have stressed the pastoral role of the whips in supporting members who are experiencing difficulties in their life beyond Westminster. While clearly not disinterested supporters, whips can nevertheless provide a vital support network for MPs struggling to combine a high profile public persona with demands in their personal life. One current Conservative whip, Andrew Stephenson, claims that in addition to ensuring the smooth passage of government business, ‘whips also play a pastoral role helping with other MPs professional and even personal problems.’ The affable, Gyles Brandreth was a whip in the Conservative government of John Major. His Westminster diaries, Breaking the Code, provide a nuanced and revealing insight into the pastoral role of the whip. On one occasion, Brandreth records, he sought the advice of the Speaker’s Chaplain, Canon Donald Gray, regarding how to deal with members experiencing a breakdown:

[A] couple of our charges are in a bad way, one especially so – bit of a breakdown – nowhere to go – what to do? Donald thinks there may be a monastery that could take him – provide space, solace, peace, a chance to recuperate, and he’d be within reach for critical votes…

This is part and parcel of the Whips’ service. We do care. We do try to help. We do say, ‘Here’s a doctor who can help,’ ‘Have you thought of AA?’ ‘Here’s a lawyer / accountant / shrink who can sort you out.’ When bankruptcy looms we do look to ways to help bail them out… Yes we’re doing it to safeguard the majority, secure the Government’s business, but we’re also doing it because it’s good man-management. I don’t know why we can’t be more open about our role, our functions, how we operate. We’re not Freemasons, we’re Members of Parliament trying to make the system work in the best interests of party, government and country. (p.424)

This pastoral role can, of course, be subject to abuse. There is a long-standing suspicion that the whips have been involved in covering up wrong doing, storing up evidence of illicit activities including sexual misconduct, in order to provide them with political leverage at a later date, rather than passing it to the relevant authorities. Claims that the Conservative whips office held a black book of members’ indiscretions may be a (self-serving) part of the mythology of the whips office, but even in their pastoral role the whips’ ultimate responsibility is to the party rather than to the individual. It is the whips who ensure that members who are unwell can be away from the House, but when a narrow vote looms it is also the whips who will arrange for members to be collected from hospital and wheeled into the chamber in order to cast their vote in the division lobby. Whips manage the practice of pairing which allows MPs to be miss a vote for personal or health reasons by holding back one of their own MPs from the vote, but whips have also been involved in unilaterally breaking pairs when it is politically expedient to do so.

There is a role for the whips in ensuring the smooth running of the House and providing support for members facing personal difficulties, even when these are self-inflicted. As the Griffiths case makes clear, the pastoral role of the whips is sometimes vital in ensuring that Members of Parliament get the support they need. In the current climate of concern regarding bullying in Parliament, it would, perhaps, be beneficial if their role was somewhat more transparent and governed by some clear ethical guidelines.

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In praise of the PM’s Parliamentary Private Secretary

MayPPS2

I have become transfixed by Prime Minister’s Questions, but not by the weekly joust between the PM and the Leader of the Opposition. I am fascinated, instead, by what is going on just over the Prime Minister’s right shoulder.

The MP sitting just behind and to the right of the Prime Minister is her Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS), Seema Kennedy. Throughout PMQs she sits with a loose-leaf sheaf of papers on her knee, easily distinguishable by the bright yellow tags attached to each sheet. At times she can be seen rapidly flicking through the papers, re-arranging sheets and PMQoccasionally scribbling notes. What we rarely see, because the restrictions on filming in parliament mean that the cameras focus on whoever is speaking, are the moments when the Prime Minister turns around to speak to her PPS and to take from her one or two of these distinctive yellow-tagged sheets. The clues, however, are clearly visible when the camera pans out and one catches a glimpse of an identical pile of yellow-tagged papers sitting on the despatch box in front of the Prime Minister.

This is Seema Kennedy’s job. As PPS to the Prime Minister she is the custodian of a folder of briefing notes prepared in anticipation of possible questions which might come up at PMQs. It includes policy details, statistics, and possible ripostes relating to any question which might be lobbed in the PM’s direction. She must then sit behind the Prime Minister in the chamber and try to anticipate questions in order to slip the appropriate briefing note into the PM’s hand, preferably before the questioner has finished asking his or her question.

For their recent and excellent book about PMQs, Punch and Judy Politics, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, who were both special advisors to Ed Miliband, have spoken to many of the participants in PMQs on both sides of the House. They describe the process of putting together the PM’s briefing folder and reveal some of the secrets and also the pitfalls involved in supporting the PM in the chamber. They note, for example, that one tactic designed to catch out the Prime Minister and guaranteed to increase the heart-rate of their PPS, is for those asking questions not to reveal the subject of the question until the very end. Questions which begin, ‘Can the Prime Minister explain the recent increase in… ‘ have a myriad of possible conclusions – taxes, immigration, waiting lists, unemployment? Such tactics, they argue, can create a split-second advantage for the Leader of the Opposition. They also reveal how William Hague, as Leader of the Opposition, took advantage of the comprehensive briefing notes prepared for Tony Blair. Hague noticed that Blair kept his briefing notes in alphabetical order in two folders. Consequently, Hague would alternate between questions on subjects from opposite ends of the alphabet, for example a question on armed forces followed by a question on welfare, forcing the PM to jump from folder to folder.

Keeping up with such ruses makes for a challenging half hour, and often considerably longer than that, for the Prime Minister’s PPS, and a compelling distraction for those of us watching the careful shuffling of papers just over the PM’s shoulder.

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Who governs? Knowing your Secretary of State from your Parliamentary Private Secretary

govIf one were to ask a random selection of the public on any high street in the UK, who they think runs the country, while the answers would be varied and perhaps laced with a healthy dose of scepticism about whether anyone was steering the ship at the moment, it is likely that a large proportion of people would offer answers including the Prime Minister, the Cabinet or the Government. If asked who occupied those positions, while most could probably name the Prime Minister and perhaps a handful of Cabinet Ministers, although probably no more than that, it seems doubtful that many would have a clear idea about who makes up the Government or indeed about how many people this comprises.

Any confusion is understandable. With the exception of the Prime Minister, even the most senior offices of state can vary over time. Some ministerial positions come into and out of existence with increasing regularity, while others are more than a little obscure. Few, I suspect, know the difference between a Parliamentary Under-Secretary and a Parliamentary Private Secretary, although to those occupying these positions the difference is clear and important. Nevertheless, the positions which make up the Government and also the number of people holding these positions is a matter of public record, and is, in some respects, defined by law. It does not constitute every MP in the governing party; but is perhaps larger than many people realise and extends some way beyond those who sit around the Cabinet table with Theresa May.

The Prime Minister

The Prime Minister sits at the head of the Government. The Prime Minister is, in general, the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons. Following a general election, the leader of the largest party in the Commons is invited by the Queen to form a government. If no party commands an overall majority in the House of Commons, by winning more than half of seats, the incumbent Prime Minister will be given the first opportunity to form a government. For example, following the 2010 general election in which no party won a majority of seats, Gordon Brown remained as Prime Minister while talks took place between the three main parties over who would form a government. Only when it became clear that he would be unable to form a coalition government or govern as a minority party, did Gordon Brown resign as Prime Minister, leaving the way open for the Queen to invite David Cameron to form a government and become Prime Minister.

Although the Prime Minister is the most powerful minister in the government, their powers are significantly constrained by the need to retain the support first of their Cabinet and of parliament.

The Deputy-Prime Minister or First Secretary of State.

There is no constitutional requirement, or indeed expectation, that Prime Ministers in the UK appoint a deputy. In the period since the second world war Britain has not had a Deputy Prime Minister more often it has had one, although in recent years the office has been occupied for long periods. Most notably by John Prescott, who served for ten years as Deputy Prime Minister under the Tony Blair, and the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg held the post for five years as part of the coalition agreement.

Prime Ministers have also, on occasion, appointed a senior Cabinet minister as First Secretary of State. This is an honorary position, which implies the holder is more senior than other Cabinet ministers, and has often, but not always, been held concurrently by the Deputy Prime Minister. Crucially, however, neither the Deputy Prime Minister or First Secretary have any particular statutory powers and they do not attract a higher salary than that for other Secretaries of State. The existence of both roles is at the discretion of the Prime Minister.

The current Prime Minister, Theresa May, has not appointed a Deputy Prime Minster or a First Secretary of State.

The Cabinet

Once the Prime Minister has been appointed he or she is expected to form a Cabinet. This is comprised of the most senior Ministers in the Government. Ministers who run government departments are known as ‘Secretary of State’. Although not every department has a Secretary of State at its head, the most important departments, such as the Home Office, the Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence and the Departments of Health & Social Care, Transport and Education, are all led by a Secretary of State who sits in the Cabinet. There are currently 18 Secretaries of State in the Cabinet.

Secretaries of State are powerful Ministers with considerable resources at their disposal which can, in some respects, make them more powerful than the Prime Minister. A Secretary of State sits at the head of a team of Ministers and can also draw upon the administrative resources of their own department. In contrast the Prime Minister does not have a government department or a ministerial team at their disposal. The Prime Minister does head the Cabinet, but once Cabinet ministers return to their own department they are masters in their own domain.

The Prime Minister can invite whoever they like to join the Cabinet, as long as they are members of the House of Commons or the House of Lords, and Cabinet ministers do not all run Government Departments or hold the title of Secretary of State. The Chancellor of the Exchequer is to all intents and purposes, including salary, the Secretary of State for the Treasury. The second most senior Minister in the Treasury, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has also often been a Cabinet minister, although this is not currently the case. The Leaders of the House of Commons and the House of Lords are also, usually, Cabinet ministers, although at the moment only the Leader of the Lords is a permanent member of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister may also choose to appoint other ministers to the Cabinet, perhaps as a means of bolstering their support around the Cabinet table. David Lidington, Minister for the Cabinet Office who also holds the honorary title, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is Deputy Prime Minister in all but name. He sits beside the Prime Minister in Cabinet and often deputises for her at PMQs.

The size of the Cabinet is limited by legislation to 21 members, excluding the Lord Chancellor, a post which is now combined with that of Secretary of State for Justice. There are, however, currently 23 members of the Cabinet. As we shall see, while there are statutory limitations on the number of ministerial salaries, the ministerial ranks have been padded out at all levels by the addition of unpaid ministerial appointments. The unpaid member of the current Cabinet is Brandon Lewis, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, who has the rank of Minister of State.

Ministers attending Cabinet

While the size of the Cabinet is limited by law other Ministers can be invited to attend Cabinet meetings, as and when they are needed. There are currently 6 Ministers listed as also attending Cabinet, these include the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Leader of the House of Commons, Attorney General and the Chief Whip. Interestingly, with the exception of Attorney-General, these are all positions which have in the recent past been full-Cabinet posts. They have been moved out of the Cabinet in part to allow for the appointment of new Secretaries of State responsible for the two departments handling Britain’s exit from the European Union: the Department for Exiting the EU and the Department of International Trade.

Crucially, however, and no matter how often they attend Cabinet, Ministers ‘also attending’ Cabinet are not Cabinet ministers and are not paid the same salary as a Cabinet minister. This is significant, in particular when one considers the gender balance in the Cabinet. Theresa May was criticised for the reduction in the number of women in her Cabinet following the 2017 general election. There are currently 5 women in the Cabinet including the Prime Minister, compared to 8 immediately before the 2017 election. In response to this criticism, it has been argued that that the total number of women attending Cabinet has actually increased, due to the fact that 4 of the 6 Ministers ‘also attending’ Cabinet are women. However, having women in positions which may involve the same work and responsibility as Cabinet ministers, but which do not attract the same status or salary, is contributing to a gender pay gap at the heart of government.

Ministers of State

There are a large number of other ministerial posts below the level of Cabinet minister. Each Secretary of State can draw on a team of junior ministers comprised of members of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. These are generally known as junior Ministers although a distinction should be made between Ministers of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State.

Ministers of State are the next rung down the ministerial ladder from Secretary of State. There are usually three or more Ministers of State in each government department. Ministers of State are powerful and may be very experienced ministers with considerable responsibility. They usually have individual responsibility for particular policy areas, and this varies depending on how departments are organised. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office for example, currently has four Ministers of State responsible for different geographical areas: Europe and the Americas; the Middle East; Asia and the Pacific; and Africa, as well as one Minister of State responsible for the Commonwealth and the UN. The Home Office has four Ministers of State with different functional briefs based on the work of the department: immigration; security and economic crime; policing and the fire service; and countering extremism. The Minister of State for Immigration, Caroline Nokes, also attends Cabinet, because immigration is considered to be a particularly important issue at this time.

The Ministerial and other Salaries Act, 1975, caps the number of paid ministerial posts, although it does allow for some differentiation between ministers at different levels. The total number of paid ministerial posts at the Minister of State level and above must not exceed 50. If there are 22 Cabinet ministers, including the Lord Chancellor, this leaves 28 other paid Ministerial posts. There are in fact currently 33 Ministers of State, across both Houses. This is achieved by having 5 unpaid Ministers of State.

Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State

Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State are the most junior Ministerial rank. There are usually one or more Parliamentary Under-Secretaries in each Ministerial team but the balance between Ministers of State and Parliamentary Under-Secretaries varies from department to department. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office currently has no Parliamentary Under-Secretaries and the Home Office has only one. In contrast, the Ministerial team in the Ministry of Defence comprises a Secretary of State, two Ministers of State and two Parliamentary Under-Secretaries.

Like Ministers of State, Parliamentary Under-Secretaries may be given responsibility for particular policy areas, although they often have a much broader brief covering a range of issues or activities and generally have less personal responsibility for the development of policy. They are more junior and often less experienced Ministers and their decision-making powers are usually more constrained than those of Ministers of State. Parliamentary Under-Secretaries would be expected to consult before making any significant policy changes or announcements.

Ministerial teams provide a thin layer of political direction in each government department and may be crucial in helping Secretaries of State to steer the administrative machine. They also have a crucial parliamentary function. Departmental questions take place each sitting day in the House of Commons, on a rotating basis. This means that each government department will be subject to an hour of parliamentary questions about their work, every five weeks or so. On these occasions, while the Secretary of State will clearly play a leading role, questions are usually answered by different members of the ministerial team depending on the subject. Working in this way, effectively as a tag-team, can help to reduce the parliamentary pressure on individual ministers and the Secretary of State in particular.

One member of each ministerial team is usually a member of the House of Lords. This is because the government needs Ministers to be able to answer questions and make statements in the Lords as well as the Commons. However, because there is usually only one member of the House of Lords in each ministerial team, Ministers in the Lords do not enjoy the parliamentary comfort blanket of a team of ministerial colleagues when answering question on the floor of the House and can appear somewhat isolated.

As with Ministers of State the number of paid positions as Parliamentary Secretary is dependent on the number of ministerial appointments at other levels. The total number of Cabinet Ministers, Ministers of State and other Ministers including Parliamentary Secretaries must not exceed 83. If the maximum number of 50 Cabinet Ministers and Ministers of State are appointed, then the total number of Parliamentary Secretaries should be 33. There are currently 35 Parliamentary Under-Secretaries, 2 of whom are unpaid for their role.

Law Officers

There are 3 law officers, these are legal advisors to the government who are also parliamentarians. The Attorney-General for England and Wales is the Government’s principal legal advisor. The Attorney-General is assisted in this role by the Solicitor-General. These are both political appointments held by Members of Parliament, albeit individuals who usually have a background in the law. By convention these are not Cabinet posts, in order to avoid a conflict of interest between those making political decisions and those offering advice on the legality of those decisions. They may, nonetheless, be asked to attend Cabinet if their advice is being sought.

Since 1999 following the devolution of justice matters to the new Scottish Parliament, a new department was created in Whitehall, the Office of the Advocate General for Scotland, and a new ministerial position of Advocate General for Scotland was created. The post is currently held by a member of the House of Lords and is combined with the post of Ministry of Justice spokesperson in the House of Lords.

Whips

Although their role is primarily to ensure party discipline, party whips are paid members of the government. There are in fact quite a lot of whips and they are assigned a range of obscure and largely honorary titles which enable them to be paid for their work. Five government whips in the House of Commons are paid as Junior Lords of the Treasury, they are supported by 7 assistant whips, who are somewhat more helpfully titled, assistant whips. There are 4 more whips in the Commons, including the Chief Whip and 3 others who go under the respective titles of Treasurer, Comptroller and Vice Chamberlain of Her Majesty’s Household.

The Chief Whip and Deputy Chief Whip in the House of Lords enjoy the even more ostentatious honorary titles of Captain of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms and Captain of the Queen’s Bodyguard of the Yeoman of the Guard. Somewhat bizarrely while government whips in the Commons go under the title of Junior Lords of the Treasury, whips in the House of Lords, who are full members of the House, are known as Baronesses and Lords in Waiting.

The Ministerial and other Salaries Act allows for 22 paid whips (excluding the Chief Whip who is paid as a Parliamentary Secretary): 16 in the House of Commons and 7 in the House of Lords. However, as with Ministerial posts there are a number of unpaid whips which means the number of whips across both Houses is currently 26.

Parliamentary Private Secretaries

The bottom rung of the ministerial ladder is occupied by the Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPS). These are unpaid ministerial aides. The role of the PPS is to support ministers in carrying out their role. They rarely get the opportunity to speak in Parliament, or indeed the media, and are not expected to answer questions, but can often be seen sitting behind ministers in Parliament, from where they can provide information and support. Most government departments have two PPSs. One is usually assigned to support the Secretary of State, while the second has a more general responsibility to support the ministerial team, although a small number of Ministers of State also have their own PPS.

Although they are not paid a ministerial salary, PPSs are expected to support the government in the same way that a Minister would. If a PPS wishes to challenge the government by speaking out publicly or voting against government policy in parliament, they would be expected to resign their position. In doing so they would forgo the possibility of elevation to ministerial ranks.

There has been a significant increase in the number of Parliamentary Private Secretaries in recent years, leading to accusations that governments are seeking to pack the House with guaranteed supporters by offering the prospect of ministerial office later. Although these are unpaid positions, when combined with the massed ranks of paid ministers these are usually known as the ‘payroll vote’. According to the latest list, which was published in September 2018, there are currently 46 Parliamentary Private Secretaries.

So how big is the government?

As should by now be clear, government is comprised of a large number of people, and there are more government posts than appear to be allowed for by legislation. This is because the legislation dealing with the number of ministerial appointments is primarily based on an assessment of the acceptable number of ministerial salaries which can be paid, rather than any notion about the acceptable size of the government. The Ministerial and Other Salaries Act 1975, limits the number of paid ministerial posts, including whips to 109, across both Houses. The House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975, provides that not more than 95 minsters may sit and vote in the House of Commons, but there is no limit for the House of Lords.

There are currently 120 individuals occupying posts as ministers and whips across both Houses, 95 in the House of Commons and 25 in the House of Lords. This is achieved by creating unpaid ministerial posts of which there are currently 11: 6 in the House of Lords and 5 in the Commons, this is two more than when the government was formed following the 2017 general election.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that there are in fact 138 separate posts for ministers and whips. This is because, at all levels, there are individuals occupying more than one role. In some cases, ministerial responsibilities are combined with other parliamentary roles. Ministers in the House of Lords for example, usually combine a specific ministerial brief with the role House of Lords spokesperson for their entire department, while five government whips in the Commons also hold ministerial posts. Other individuals carry two full ministerial roles, Penny Mordaunt for example, combines the role of Secretary of State for International Development with that of Minister for Women and Equalities. She is assisted in this by Victoria Atkins who is Minister for Women and a Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Home Office with responsibility for crime, safeguarding and vulnerability. Similarly, the recent announcement of a new Minister for Suicide Prevention, did not involve the appointment of a new minister but was added to the portfolio of Jackie Doyle-Price who already holds the position of Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Mental Health and Inequalities. Once again it is unfortunate that so many of these combined roles, in which individuals carry out two jobs for one salary, are held by woman.

With 120 individuals holding government posts as ministers and whips in percentage terms the May government is now larger than any government since 1979, and quite possibly than at any point in history. This is all the more remarkable when one considers that Theresa May has fewer MPs on which to draw than any Prime Minister since 1979. When the 46 Parliamentary Private Secretaries are added to the 95 Ministers and Whips in the House of Commons there are 141 Conservative members of the House of Commons currently holding government posts. This amounts to 45% of MPs on the Conservative benches and 22% of the total number of MPs elected to the House of Commons. This central core of loyal MPs, who would need to resign their position in order to vote against the government, is of course vital if one is seeking to govern without a majority.

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Choosing a politics textbook

booksChoosing a textbook for your first year politics course can be a daunting prospect, as much for those delivering the course as for students embarking on a degree in politics. As I write this a pile of no less than eight different politics text books totters on the edge of my desk, many of them in multiple editions. Most are designed as broad introductions to British government and politics and cover broadly the same ground. Alongside them sits an, albeit smaller, pile of politics dictionaries, and a diverse assortment of general introductions to recent developments. Selecting a single volume from this ever growing pile is no easy task.

Keeping up with events

One simple and effective criteria is to select the most recently published textbook on the basis that if a week is a long time in politics then the years between editions of most standard textbooks amount to a political epoch. The pace of political change in the UK over the last few years means that most politics textbooks are out of date long before they hit the bookshops. Publishers generally attempt to keep up with the electoral cycle so that new editions of established titles appear after each general election. But with two general elections in a little over three years, interspersed with a referendum on EU membership, the demands of keeping pace with events is has posed a particular challenge to publishers and those responsible for writing textbooks.

politics ukThis year’s students have the benefit of a new edition of the of the popular Politics UK textbook by Bill Jones, Philip Norton and Oliver Daddow, the 9th edition of which was published in the spring of 2018. Although this is a long-established franchise the latest edition has been substantially revised to reflect recent developments. The strains imposed by Britain’s impending exit from the EU is woven through many of the chapters, notably Deacon’s chapter on devolution and Norton’s chapters on government and parliament. The book also benefits from an excellent new chapter, ‘From Euroscepticism to Brexit’, by Bill Jones. The impact of the Trump Presidency on British politics and policy is also examined, particularly in the chapter on British foreign policy, while the idea of ‘fake news’ is scrutinised in the chapter on the mass media.

Another valuable feature of recent editions of Politics UK is the inclusion of short think pieces at the end of each section under the tagline, ‘And another thing…’ These provide valuable commentary on key issues and events. The 9th edition includes interesting pieces by Simon Jenkins on the future of the UK, Bill Jones on fake news and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett on equality. The only problem with these short commentaries is that one can no longer simply dispose of the earlier edition when a new one is published and students would be well advised to seek out earlier editions. While students embarking on a degree in 2018 will be well served  by the 9th edition of Politics UK, I would also recommend that they read the short end-pieces from earlier editions such as Mark Garnett on the 2011 riots, Peter Riddell on the decline of the mainstream media and Michael Moran on whether it is possible to buck the markets from the 8th edition, Andrew Gamble on the legacy of empire and Chris Mullin on the parliamentary expenses scandal from the 7th edition and Hugo Young’s excellent essay in the 6th edition.

One solution often adopted by publishers to accommodate rapidly changing events is to issue supplements or append additional chapters to popular texts covering recent events. The best recent example of this was Michael Moran’s Politics and Governance in the UK, Although the 3rd edition was published in August 2015, Palgrave rushed out an updated edition in 2017 reflecting recent changes to coincide with the start of the new academic year. This was not a new edition but largely comprised the addition of a new preface by Moran covering the EU referendum and the 2017 election. Nevertheless, Moran’s textbook which was published after the 2015 election also has much to say on other recent developments. The debate over Scottish independence, for example, is treated in considerable depth and reflects the book’s overall aim to expand our understanding of British politics and governance beyond the dynamics of Westminster and Whitehall.

It is also worth noting that even the most recent editions of textbooks rarely offer an entirely new perspective on events. One of the reasons that textbooks can go through many editions in a relatively short space of time is that recent developments are generally absorbed into an existing, usually successful, framework. It is the nature of textbooks that they rarely present cutting edge, original research but provide a distillation of current received wisdom on particular issues, and at best, an introduction to key debates in the wider literature. In the case of the latest edition of Politics UK, for example, the chapter headings and indeed the content is broadly the same as in previous editions.

Partly as a result of this, another criticism of many politics textbooks is that they often focus too much on explaining the relatively unchanging systems of government, but provide less effective commentary on the more dynamic politics which takes place within them. While most will provide an introduction to the principal actors and institutions of the British political system they can, at times, read like guidebooks or manuals, which explain how the system works but not why it operates in a particular way. Rather like a Haynes car manual they often adeptly explain how the machine operates but don’t consider the impact of whoever is driving it. This is a point well made in this review from The Times Higher in which Eric Shaw observes that some politics textbooks, including an earlier edition of Politics UK, can:

…leave one with the impression of analysts with a solid mastery of British politics intent on delivering learning in a cool, precise and scholarly manner. Equally [they] exhibit a somewhat Whiggish view of the British political system and never prod the reader in querying fundamentals.

In many of these books the answer to the question ‘who runs Britain?’ often begins something like ‘Britain is a parliamentary democracy….’ which perhaps somewhat misses the point. In response to this, in previous years I have recommended Dearlove and Saunders excellent Introduction to British Politics, which covers much the same ground as many of the other textbooks but in many areas offers a more thoughtful and critical edge. Sadly, the most recent edition was published in 2000 and is unlikely to meet the needs of students starting their degree in 2018. The previous edition was published in 1991, and was a set text on my own undergraduate degree, so the prospect of another edition any time soon are remote.

Joint or single-authored?

Another worthwhile consideration is whether textbooks are single-authored or include chapters by a range of different authors. It is the nature of academic research that most scholars tend to develop depth of knowledge over breadth. The advantage of books with multiple authors is that individual chapters are usually contributed by experts on each subject. Single-authored books in contrast reflect the expertise, but also the limitations, of a single author’s knowledge. Writing a textbook which encompasses in some depth every aspect of British government and politics is a tall order, even for the most accomplished scholar, as this article in The Time Higher observed.  Nevertheless, some, including Michael Moran, have done so with some success.

Moreover, books by a single author can sometimes display a coherence and consistency of purpose which can be lacking in those written by multiple authors. There is also often an appealing quirkiness which can make single-authored textbooks somewhat more readable. While nobody sits down and reads a textbook in one sitting, if forced to do so I would choose something like Moran’s Politics and Governance in the UK or John Kingdom’s Government and Politics in Britain over Politics UK.  A new edition of Kingdom’s book, now jointly authored, with Paul Fairclough, author of several A level politics textbooks, was published in 2014, and is well worth a look. The chapters on ‘Social Context’ and ‘Mind Politics’ are particularly valuable and I have long admired Kingdom’s, at times amusing, recommendations for further reading, and particularly viewing, at the end of each chapter.

A slightly different kind of politics textbook is represented by the multi-authored or edited collections which don’t seek to explain how the political system works but instead provide informed commentary on the most recent developments. These books won’t help one to understand, for example, how parliament works or the relative merits of different electoral systems but they will help to explain what impact recent governments have had on political institutions and processes. By seeking to be current, these books have a built in obsolescence but they are vital and thought-provoking and should be read alongside the standard textbooks. The most prominent example of this genre is the Developments in British Politics series which is currently in its 10th edition, imaginatively entitled Developments in British Politics 10. Anthony Seldon and Mike Finn’s edited collection, The Coalition Effect, 2010-2015 is another valuable example, from a series which has charted the ‘effect’ of every Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. Sadly there is not as yet a single volume on the Cameron ‘effect’, although Cameron’s brief period as Prime Minister of a majority government may well preclude this.

Study guides

Recent years have seen a growth in the publication of study guides. Some of these such as the Palgrave Study Skills series are designed for students across disciplines. Of these, Stella Cottrell’s  Study Skills Handbook is still the best, but there are now a bewildering array of other guides in the series covering subjects such as essay writing, undergraduate research and critical thinking.

polircompDiscipline specific study guides are less common. The 2nd edition of Robert Leach and Simon Lightfoot’s excellent Politics and IR Companion, was published in 2018, and is probably the most useful volume to sit alongside Politics UK on the politics student’s bookshelf. This invaluable reference work combines short dictionary-type summaries of key concepts and key thinkers with more subtantive chapters outlining the evolution of the study of politics and a truly excellent section on study skills which will support undergraduate students from their first lecture to their final exam. The inclusion of a chapter on employability encompassing advice on applying for jobs and internships is a significant addition to this edition.

Another recent example of a student focused guide is Doing Politics by Professor Jacqui Briggs, the sadly departed head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln. This short guide not only provides an introduction to the subject but also invaluable commentary on what one is likely to encounter when studying for a degree in the politics, with details of the likely content of a politics degrees, teaching methods and employment prospects.

In defence of a dictionary

dictFinally, a word about dictionaries. It may seem somewhat obstinate in the days of the internet and Wikipedia to recommend that students buy something as antiquated as a dictionary but a good dictionary of politics will be an invaluable addition to the politics student’s bookshelf. It is important to remember that studying politics at degree level is a specialist pursuit in the same way as engineering or medicine. One would not expect a medical student to Google a patient’s symptoms, and similarly a politics student confused about the single transferable vote or the nature of multiculturalism would do well to reach for a good dictionary of politics rather than their iPad. The latest of edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics was published in 2018 and, in a welcome development, has been expanded to encompass international relations. There are other dictionaries on the market. Bill Jones’s, Dictionary of British Politics  is dated but still useful and distinguished by the fact that it focuses solely on British politics, which may or may not suit, while the Routledge Dictionary of Politics contains fewer but often more substantive definitions and is particularly strong on concepts and ideologies. While politics dictionaries are periodically updated, having the most recent edition is less important than with textbooks which deal with events, and older or previous editions can often be relatively inexpensive.

Nobody needs eight politics textbooks, not least me, a single edition of the most recent will generally suffice, as long as one understands that each has its limitations and there is much to be gained from dipping into the others from time to time. Having a copy sitting on the edge of one’s desk will be a considerable source of information, a useful prompt to do some reading and an occasional cure for insomnia. For much else the library beckons.

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