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IFG - Johnson's reforms to role of special advisers disempowering ministers

Boris Johnson’s changes to the role of special advisers (SpAds) are disempowering ministers and undermining the quality of government decision making, says a new report by the Institute for Government.

Special Advisers and the Johnson Government: How the prime minister and his team are changing the role also says that the increased powers and responsibilities handed to certain SpAds, including Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, require increased scrutiny. The report says Johnson should accept requests from parliamentary select committees for Cummings to appear as a witness.

Drawing on extensive interviews with current and former special advisers, civil servants and former secretaries of state, the report assesses the increased responsibilities handed to Cummings and David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, the effect of greater No.10 oversight of advisers’ appointment, and the way many SpAds now report directly to the prime minister’s team as well as their secretary of state.

Closer No.10 control over advisers has helped the Johnson government SpAds to focus on  the prime minister’s priorities, particularly compared to the dysfunction of Theresa May’s time as prime minister when advisers had to deal with a cabinet split into warring factions. But greater No.10 control brings the risk that ministers lose a trusted source of advice and the range of views in government is narrowed. The report also calls on the government to overhaul what has for too long, under many different governments, been an amateur approach to induction, support and management of special advisers. Given that this job is so crucial to ministers, taking the time to explain to advisers how to be effective will pay dividends for the government. 

The report recommends that:

  • No.10 allows ministers to choose their own advisers – subject to the prime minister’s approval – rather than imposing its own candidates
  • Ministers agree to requests for powerful and high-profile special advisers to appear in front of select committees
  • The prime minister urgently modernises how special advisers are supported so that they can be far more effective in what is a critical job in government. 

Tim Durrant, IfG associate director and author of the report, said:

“Special advisers play an essential role in any government and Boris Johnson’s administration is no different. But the way that special advisers work with No.10, and No.10’s approach to the hiring and firing of advisers, risks undermining the close relationship between a minister and their advisers. Rather than seeking to control everything that advisers do, No.10 should support them in their role as trusted members of ministers’ teams.”

Notes to editors

  1. The full report can be found on our website
  2. The Institute for Government is an independent think tank that works to make government more effective.
  3. For more information, including data to reproduce any charts, please contact / 0785 031 3791.

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