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. 

Number 10 Downing Street — where Dominic Cummings held his infamous Friday afternoon meeting for SpAds

I did a little bit of digging before coming up with a short comment from ‘a source close to James Brokenshire’, as media special advisers are frequently described in the press. I pinged the lines through to Oliver and thought little more of it, getting back to my bulging inbox with my rescue cat, Jack, purring away on my lap. The comment I texted was quite strongly worded: the company had not always acted entirely properly in regard to the government Help to Buy scheme, which allows first-time buyers to get a foot on the property ladder. I checked Twitter that night for the front pages of the next day’s papers, which are put online about 10.30 p.m. The Times screamed:

‘Help to Buy house giant faces loss of contract’, with the first paragraph of a story by Wright and two other journalists reading:

Britain’s most profitable housebuilder faces being stripped of its right to sell Help to Buy homes after allegations of poor standards and hidden punitive charges. James Brokenshire, the housing secretary, is reviewing Persimmon’s participation in the government scheme, which accounted for half of the homes it built last year, The Times has learnt.

A few paragraphs later, Wright quoted the source (me):

“James has become increasingly concerned by the behaviour of Persimmon in the last 12 months,’ the source said. ‘Leasehold, build quality, their leadership seemingly not getting they’re accountable to their customers are all points that have been raised by the secretary of state privately.

“Given that contracts for the 2021 extension to Help to Buy are being reviewed shortly it would be surprising if Persimmon’s approach wasn’t a point of discussion.’ They added: ‘James is clear any new government funding scheme will not support the unjustified use of leasehold for new homes, including Help to Buy.”

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