What is the role of a chief advisor?

Why has there been such a hoo-ha about Dominic Cummings’ legal transgression? Well, we need to think about who he is, and what his position is.

Basically, senior politicians do not know everything, nor can they be expected to, so ministers have a team of special advisors. They know how the system works but can add in a political slant to reflect the leadership of the time. They are civil servants but without the constraints of full-time, permanent officials. Generally, a minister needs to feel confident about the team of advisors they have appointed.

For example, if we think back to February 2020, the then Chancellor, Sajid Javid, quit his rather than sack his own chosen team of advisors, and allow his office to be merged with No. 10’s, a move which would have put them under the effective control of the PM’s Chief Advisor, Dominic Cummings.

At the time, the BBC reported: In his resignation letter, Mr Javid explained that he could not accept the PM’s conditions saying: “I believe it is important as leaders to have trusted teams that reflect the character and integrity that you would wish to be associated with.”

There is now a joint team of advisors for the office of Prime minister and that of Chancellor.

But what does a chief advisor do?

Well, he is an unelected aid to the Prime Minister, which makes him very powerful indeed. He has no requirement, as senior civil servants do, to remain impartial.

In terms of Dominic Cummings, he is a smart operator, known for reviling the civil service and the media. He read Ancient and Modern History at Oxford, then worked for three years in Russia. A renowned Eurosceptic, it was the Vote Leave campaign that catapulted him into the public eye in Britain. He is said to have penned the “Take Back Control” slogan and thought up the controversial NHS bus stunt. Some of you might have seen the television series about the campaign, “Brexit: The Uncivil War”, in which the role of Cummings was acted by Benedict Cumberbatch. If not, it is well worth a watch.

Why is Boris Johnson so attached to him? Well, here is the BBC’s take on it.


This is what the Civil Service home page says:

There are a number of reasons why Ministers find it helpful to have the modern form of Special Advisers within No.10 and within Ministerial Departments.

The first and obvious reason is that it gives Ministers immediate and simultaneous access to a friendly and familiar face offering political advice to be considered alongside that from mainstream civil servants. It is not surprising that many Ministers prefer to have near them devils that they know rather than devils they don’t know – especially at the beginning of their time in government. They have chosen them (rather than had them imposed upon them) unlike their civil servants and often their departmental junior Ministers – and they are likely to have compatible personalities.

The second, equally obvious, reason is that (they) can give strong political advice, help draft political speeches etc., thus providing an extra pair of hands when there is ever-increasing pressure on Ministerial time.

And the third, also very strong, reason is that Special Advisers can often provide a different perspective – a counterpoint, if you will – to the advice emanating from the official machine. Officials’ recommendations may require Ministers to take unacceptable political risks – or indeed operational and financial risk. 

One difference between permanent civil servants and Special Advisers is that the latter are usually fiercely loyal to their Minister, on whose career they themselves depend, and sensitive to what they perceive as disloyal criticism. For instance, it is quite OK to ask a Private Secretary what on earth caused the Minister to say such and such a thing to a visitor. The Private Secretary will explain what went wrong, or acknowledge that the Minister made a mistake, and then you can get on and loyally sort out the resultant problem. But if you put the same question to a special adviser, they will often go into defensive mode and/or, even worse, tell the Minister what you said, which hardly helps build up a long term relationship.

The Global Government Forum tells us:

“The prime minister is the first minister of the civil service and so what he does, or what is done in his name by people like Dominic Cummings, resonates across the entire civil service” adding that “Special advisers play a critical role in how government performs, helping civil servants to understand the direction the minister wants to take and their priorities. Through providing overtly political advice to the minister that civil servants can’t, they help to protect the impartiality of the civil service”.



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