Confessions of a government SpAd

Former special advisor Peter Cardwell on twerking ministers, working with Boris — and being sacked by Dominic Cummings

Purchasing a pair of rainbow-coloured underpants for a government minister. Explaining what a dental dam is to the Justice Secretary. Having my inside leg measured in a government office. It’s all in a day’s work for the small army of ministerial aides or special advisers that populate Whitehall. I did the job for three-and-a-half years, in four departments, for four Cabinet ministers — and even the seemingly-quiet days can have dramatic consequences.

Dominic Cummings, the then-chief SpAd, wasn’t a fan of us working from home, and tried to ban it — even creating a 6pm meeting in Downing Street every Friday afternoon for the 100 or so of us who did the job. But one particular Friday in February 2019 — before Dominic’s reign — I spent the morning in my university hoodie and jogging bottoms, happily tapping away at my laptop and working on my two phones. (There are only two groups of people who always work on two phones, by the way: SpAds and drug dealers.)

I often got a lot more done at home than when I was in the office, as I avoided constant interruption by civil servants. That morning, I got a call from senior Times journalist Oliver Wright, the paper’s policy editor. As media special adviser to then-Housing Secretary James Brokenshire, I was in frequent contact with Oliver. Had I heard, he asked, that the controversial housing giant Persimmon was rumoured to be about to post profits of £1 billion? I had not. But Oliver, naturally, wanted a comment. 

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