Michael Cockerell reveals what really happens in the hidden power houses of Whitehall - the cabinet minister's private office, where advisers battle with civil servants.
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This programme contains some strong language
This is the secret world of Whitehall.
Decisions taken here behind closed doors affect all our daily lives.
I'm telling the inside story of what has gone on over the years
in the great institutions at the very heart of government.
Tonight - how the hidden network of private offices operates.
Every government minister has a private office
run by a small team of high-flying civil servants.
Their job is to manage the minister's professional life,
and to protect, guide and inform.
They told me, we have one allegiance. You.
So, we fight your battles for you.
We guard your back.
What many people don't realise is just how intimate
the relationship between the private office and the minister is.
That intense loyalty to whoever is there, has to be seen to be believed.
But also working with the private office are shadowy figures
sometimes dubbed the people who live in the dark.
They're the special advisers and unlike the neutral civil servants they're party political.
And there have been many bloody power struggles waged
within this most influential of Whitehall's secret networks.
A job in the private office can be the route to the top
of the civil service or politics if you're young and ambitious.
20 years ago the Chancellor Norman Lamont's special adviser was one David Cameron,
who was with him on Black Wednesday.
Today has been an extremely difficult and turbulent day.
Lamont had to resign as Chancellor after Black Wednesday,
but David Cameron moved on to another top private office
as special adviser to the Home Secretary, Michael Howard.
There, his task was to advise Howard
on political pitfalls and image presentation.
Also doing the same thing as a special adviser in another ministry
and then in Number 10, was the young George Osborne.
He'd sometimes work hand in glove with Cameron.
And do you think you've got a killer blow?
Well, we certainly hope so. We're going to go and see.
When New Labour came to power there were many more special advisers,
-known in Whitehall as Spads.
-This is the study.
Ed Balls was chief Spad to the new Chancellor, Gordon Brown.
Another Spad learning his trade in the Chancellor's private office
was the youthfully bespectacled Ed Miliband.
'And a new class of person has emerged.'
They're usually young graduates, often with no experience outside
politics, who have come straight from university.
Intellectually clever, enthusiastic, but I think that...
I don't think it's added to politics.
30 years ago, a TV satire showed how the top civil servant in the private
office reacted to the intrusion of a political adviser.
-Bernard Woolley, Principal Private Secretary.
-How do you do?
-Mr Lloyd-Prichard, Assistant.
-This is my political adviser.
-Yes, of course. Mr Weasel.
Yes, Minister was depicting with complete historical accuracy how
the real private office civil servants sought to marginalise the Spads.
-Where are we all going to?
-Well, you're going to your office, Minister.
-But what about Frank?
He's being taking care of, Minister.
-Wait here, sir.
-But this is the waiting room.
-But I'm Jim Hacker's special adviser.
The Minister now has a whole department to advise him, sir.
Look, he needs me!
Of course he does, but until the minister sends for you, would you be so good as to wait?
Although special advisers are now an accepted part of the Whitehall scene,
it's the civil servants who always have been and remain the beating heart of the private office network.
When Alan Johnson became Home Secretary two years ago,
he was taken to be introduced to the young civil servants
who made up his private office.
-Go on, Richard, do the honours.
-This is Natasha who does security and counter terrorism.
Gareth, how are you?
-Nice to meet you.
I think it was summed up by my very first private secretary.
I said, I don't know where to start. What...do you do?
He said I run your private office and the purpose of your private office
is to be your corridor into the rest of government.
You've got to understand, there are lots of civil servants
that will come in to see you whose allegiance will be elsewhere,
to their permanent secretary, to the Department, to Number 10.
He said, we've one allegiance - you.
So, we fight your battles for you, we guard your back,
we convey what you want to the rest of the department and to the rest of Whitehall.
It was five minutes, but it summed it up.
What sort of civil servants get chosen to work in the private office?
Bright people, high-fliers, people interested in politics and ministers
and the private office becomes the golden ladder as it were,
to the top, and if you look at some of the people that have
become Permanent Secretaries and indeed Cabinet Secretaries, many of them
have been Private Secretaries and principal private secretaries on the way up that ladder.
Robin Butler was to become top mandarin after working long hours for three Prime Ministers
in the Number 10 private office.
'I first went in to Number 10 in 1972.'
When I left, I found that
I'd never seen my children in their school clothes.
Because I left before they were dressed in the morning
and I never got home before they were asleep in bed in the evening.
In the ministries across Whitehall, the private office normally has pride of place in the building.
There's a team of people out there, sitting at desks,
who are my private office.
'They're the people that work to you personally, and they really plug me
'into the rest of the system, and they handle absolutely all of the day-to-day activity.
'They also arrange my diary, moment by moment, day-by-day,
'and it goes beyond that. Because they get to know what you really want to do,
what your priorities are, get to know what the problems are out there, and help you do the job,
which is your job, as smoothly as they possibly can.
The private office is absolutely vital to a minister.
They're the eyes and ears within the department, the two-way conduit,
the gatekeeper to that Minister.
They're the first source of immediate policy advice or communication advice
before they then get the right officials in to advise.
The other great thing about the private office is,
it's the shock absorber of the system.
Rather than a secretary of state for X going around to biff secretary of state for Y,
because of some slight in the Cabinet Room, or some minute that's come through
which is really designed to irritate, or subvert,
the private office network has a chat amongst itself to try and soothe things.
The private office goes back to the very first Prime Minister,
Robert Walpole in the eighteenth century.
His private secretary was the son of the earl of Dartmouth.
Over the following two centuries, as ministries became more powerful
and government more involved in raising and spending public money,
the private office network developed across Whitehall.
It was given a huge boost by Lloyd George when he became Prime Minister
in the middle of the first world war.
He decided on a total reorganisation of central government...
a powerful new Number 10 private office was to be the command and control centre of Whitehall.
And for the first time a record would be make of cabinet decisions.
The national shorthand champion became Lloyd George's Private Secretary.
'I was ushered into the Cabinet Room,
'and there, I sat with the Cabinet Ministers around me, and I took shorthand notes.'
It was the first time that any shorthand writer had ever
been in that Cabinet Room to take a Cabinet discussion.
And then, I typed it out on my typewriter.
Starting with Sylvester's typewriter, Lloyd George made
Number 10 the prototype for a private office in every Whitehall ministry.
He'd recruited so many new staff to his private office
that they'd be housed in temporary huts in the Number 10 garden
that became known as Lloyd George's garden suburb.
Over the years, the power of the private offices
has grown in every ministry.
They provide an unrivalled confidential network
for the exchange of inside information and Whitehall gossip.
And a job in the private office is the aim for every civil service high flyer in Whitehall
that has traditionally been a hierarchical place.
REPORTER: 'The pecking order in Whitehall is still very important.
'The head of the department gets the big desk, a big chair, a thick carpet
'and a very high-class secretary.
'Note also that he has an individual coat stand and an old master on the wall.
'His number two, however, gets a rather more functional map,
'a smaller table and, as you will note behind his head, a mere peg on the wall for his coat.
'But he has, at least, an individual if rather austere light, not just a supermarket strip light
'like these two poor chaps who even have to share a room.
'But I bet they both took double firsts and will both end up as ambassadors.'
Every ambitious young civil servant feels the pull of the private office.
Private office, I think this is probably one of the most interesting
aspects of a civil servant's career.
It means really acting as the link between the minister on the one hand
and literally everybody else on the other.
Members of parliament, other ministers. Members of the public.
Local authorities, pressure groups, the lot.
-A sort of protector of the minister.
-Yes, not always an appreciated protector,
but nevertheless, a protector.
It meant, of course, a constant runaround,
but I was allowed half a day off to go and get married.
And strictly on the works side,
if you enjoy politics and seeing how they work and how the whole machine
of government works, as I do, then I think you'll find it fascinating.
What they require, is experience.
Because they're all being identified as young, high-flying civil servants,
expected to go a long way in their civil service careers and they seek
having a tremendous close-up view of how government works.
Wherever ministers go, they like to be in constant touch with their private office.
Eric Varley, a Labour cabinet minister in the mid 70s,
would communicate using state of the art technology.
Alison, I wonder if all of the briefing is complete for Cabinet this morning?
I wonder if I could have a meeting with officials before that, over?
There's a possibility there might be a PMQ, which we'll keep in touch
with parliamentary branch about.
But I think also, the Prime Minister has questions this afternoon and he may get asked about it.
The private office includes the diary secretary, a number of policy specialists
and it's headed by the principal private secretary
who's the main point of contact for the minister.
I'm probably closer to him than any other civil servant in the department.
I see everything he does, and I attend all his meetings.
I try to see things through his eyes.
I rather think that the role of the private office, so far as the civil
service is concerned, is to wrap the secretary of state
or the minister in cotton wool, keep tabs on him,
to make sure that he's certainly informed, but also,
to perhaps insulate him from a degree of reality from the outside world.
But the private office's precise method of insulation can vary
according to the minister's status,
as one ambitious politician discovered in 1970.
I arrived in this room, a very large room,
completely empty of all paperwork.
And I assumed somebody would tell me sooner or later
what I was supposed to do. No-one did. And I sat there.
They brought the coffee, and it was not for half-an-hour or so,
and I read the papers - there were a lot of papers.
Every national newspaper was available in my office for me to read.
It's only about an hour-and-a-half later, that I really came to grips
with the problem that I had to be a self-starter.
I had to make it clear what I wanted to do,
and the way I saw my job evolving.
There was no induction course, no training, no guidelines.
In many ways, that's one of the most critical moments of a minister's career, whether he ever survives
that moment, when if he doesn't emerge and take a command of the situation,
he'll simply become the victim of the mountain of paperwork that will flow across his desk.
Basically, you were a bag-carrier, you were expected to attend minutes,
meetings with your secretary of state and to listen,
perhaps be asked for your opinion, but you had no real power and responsibility.
You had a private office which reflected that,
your private secretary was being trained as a civil servant in the experience of ministerial life.
Nearly 40 years on, Gordon Brown made the businessman Digby Jones a minister.
The Whitehall outsider was surprised by his private office.
I very quickly put a piece of paper on my desk and I wrote
on it as best I could, to put a word around the sound...
So, there were lots of letters and exclamation marks, and I can remember
my private secretary came in and said, what's that, Minister?
I said, that's the most common sound I hear in this office.
And it's about usually followed by the words, "Very brave, Minister."
Or, "I wouldn't do that, Minister."
And it's this...
..because they're brought up to be risk-averse.
Their job in the private office is to serve their nation
through the Minister, to keep the Minister out of trouble
and to keep the minister delivering on agreed policy. That's their job.
But another key job of the private office is to scan the horizon and spot unexpected troubles
especially when a minister is sent to a newly created department.
'My principal private secretary rang me up and said,'
"You'll be getting your first day briefing and all of that."
He said, "Has the Prime Minister mentioned to you about changing the name of the Department?"
I said, yes, he did say something about productivity and science.
He said, "Could I just go through with you what the Department is due to be called?
"It's due to be called the Department of Productivity, Energy -
"which is usually described as EN,
"Industry and Science."
He said, "You'll be the Secretary of State for PENIS."
I said, oh, gosh, that doesn't sound very good.
So, I said, what can we do about this?
'They had unscrewed Department of Trade and Industry signs from outside Victoria Street.
'Fortunately, they hadn't put the new name up yet.
'So I kind of stopped any further work on it before I went to see the Prime Minister.'
And I said, do you mind if I raise something with you, Prime Minister? The name of the Department?
He said, what's the problem? So I explained it to him.
I said, the Department for PENIS, I'd be the secretary of state for PENIS.
He said, well, let's change it back.
And all these people sat around, he says, whose idea was this?
Talk about, success has many parents and failure is an orphan.
And no-one said anything. He said, well, let's just change it back to the Department of Trade and Industry.
So I came out of that meeting with my first great victory.
But, really, because I was alerted to it very early on by my principal private secretary.
When David Blunkett was made Education Secretary in 1997,
he was the first blind Cabinet Minister.
And his Principal Private Secretary Alun Evans had worked out in advance
how to make Blunkett's ministerial life easier.
We did have a bit of a glitch, because I'd ordered through
my officials, a state-of-the-art Braille machine which converted
word documents into Braille and David Blunkett didn't often use Braille,
but he did for formal set pieces like statements to Parliament
or briefings to the Prime Minister.
And the first briefing to the Prime Minister we duly produced in Braille in the first week,
had we handed it to him with about five minutes to go before the meeting, as often happens
last-minute, and he grabbed it and went into Number 10.
What we hadn't realised was that the Braille machine was made in Sweden
and had a switch on the back of the machine which switched from English to Swedish Braille,
and we'd handed him a word-perfect copy of Swedish Braille briefing on education policy.
He winged it and did it very well.
It must have been something of a surprise for him as he was trying to...
Well, it was, he found a bit of hurdy-gurdy smorgasbord on the text in front of him.
Peter Mandelson had a succession of private offices across Whitehall,
before ending up as first Secretary of State at the department of business innovation and skills.
The private office and the private secretaries play
an absolutely crucial, seminal, professional,
I mean, really brilliant role in this...
It's a joy to work with them and to see that sort of dedication
and working around the clock, and that intense loyalty to
whoever is there, you know, it's to be seen to be believed.
In his private office, Mandelson goes through his diary.
-I'm going to Nottingham tomorrow, yes.
There's a reception tomorrow night.
Oh. How annoying.
Is there anything you wanted to do on Friday, specifically?
I want it to be my time.
My thinking time. My thinking time.
The key coupling in the private office was described by
Benjamin Disraeli, the Victorian Chancellor and Prime Minister, a century and a half ago.
He said, "Relations between the Minister and his private secretary
"are, or should be, among the finest that can subsist between
"two individuals, except for the married state".
What many people don't realise is just how intimate
the relationship between the Private Office and their minister is.
You do form a very close relationship
with your private secretary.
The foreign secretary Douglas Hurd and his principal private secretary John Sawers
would go for early morning swims at international conferences.
Sawers is now head of MI6.
I used to get my private secretary into a sort of discipline,
getting up early for a swim.
Sometimes it was extremely cold,
but it sharpens up your body and mind.
The private office is very beguiling.
It is a very hot-house environment.
You live on very close terms
with your minister, your Secretary Of State
and that's the most important person in your life.
And some civil servants, when they enter into private office,
can become too close to the minister.
A sensational example of a Private Office relationship too close
happened in the '60s.
John Vassall was a private secretary to the Navy Minister.
He was revealed as a KGB spy
who'd been entrapped by the Soviet Communists in a homosexual sting.
His minister at the Admiralty was Tam Galbraith,
an aristocratic Tory.
The revelation that the minister had sent his private secretary letters
beginning, "My Dear Vassall..." caused a scandal.
Amid lurid rumours, Galbraith resigned
saying, "My long accustomed manner of dealing with officials
"has become an embarrassment."
Vassall was jailed for ten years for spying for the Russians,
while Galbraith was exonerated by an official enquiry.
Alan Clark was one of Mrs Thatcher's ministers.
A renowned womaniser,
Clark revealed in his diaries, which were later dramatised,
how he lusted after
his principal private secretary.
"Jenny Easterbrook - sexuality tightly-controlled.
"She makes plain her feelings on several accounts
"without expressing them."
Do you take dictation?
I am an official, not a typist.
The Enterprise Allowance Scheme, Job Release Scheme,
They will expect you to have at least some knowledge of those,
even if you can't fully get to grips with them.
What is wrong with two human beings of the opposite sex
feeling attracted to each other?
I don't see how that can be scandalous.
For some reason, all the attention seems to be on her.
Sequins, that's what you need!
As Secretary Of State for Wales,
William Hague fared better than Alan Clark.
He and Ffion Jenkins his Private Office secretary
fell in love and they got married.
The one thing the private office does,
and I think does brilliantly actually, is it's loyal.
You do know they will come in and they'll close the door
and tell you where they think this wasn't your finest moment,
or indeed, "Let's equip you for what's hopefully a finer moment tomorrow."
But they are on your side
and they see their job as serving their country through this minister.
The Private Office is a vital part
of the ability of a minister to run his or her department
and to carry out policy.
Essential to it is a relationship of trust
and what I think is so remarkable
is that in all the years I have been in politics,
I can think of no instance at all
of a private secretary breaching that trust
by telling stories about his minister or her minister
to the newspapers,
to television or the media.
If they do, it's so wonderfully private
that nobody ever discovers.
One remarkable episode that was kept completely secret by the Number Ten Private Office
happened in the summer of 1953.
It involved the Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
He suffered a severe stroke and was no longer able to function.
Churchill's Private Office decided
that the outside world must be kept in the dark
and conspired with the powerful press barons.
The Tory MP Bill Deedes,
who was soon to become a Churchill minister,
worked closely with the proprietor of The Daily Telegraph.
I don't use the word - there was an agreement,
not a conspiracy, to keep it quiet.
And it worked.
Churchill's Private Office that was headed by Sir Jock Colville,
who'd been with him during the war,
reached a deal to keep news of Churchill's condition out of the press.
And Colville along with Christopher Soames, Churchill's son-in-law,
ran the country.
While the real Prime Minister was kept incommunicado and out of public sight,
Colville and Soames were Churchill impersonators.
Christopher Soames knew how to get the signature right.
He could sign, "Winston Churchill."
So after Churchill had his stroke, Soames was signing...
I think there was a bit of that, yes.
You know this?
I suppose I do, yes.
But I don't think, really,
that the covering up of his stroke was deceitful.
I don't think it was a black mark on government.
It was quite important
to maintain an appearance of normality.
Anyway, we managed to do it.
All the private offices in the ministries of Whitehall
are repositories of secrets held by civil servants
about their political masters.
They have to know every bit of the emotional life, pretty well,
of the minister they are serving.
If they have mistresses, they have to know about them
in case they have to get them all times of night and day.
And they have to have no secrets from each other
if it's going to work properly.
One of the ways that the Private Office civil servants discover everything they can,
happens every time a minister makes phone call.
The way it worked with the Tory minister Peter Walker in the '70s
is the way it's still done in Private Office today.
Everything a minister says
is monitored by a private secretary listening in on extension outside.
I remember when I first stepped into my Private Office
I was horrified to note that when I picked up the phone,
another phone was being picked up at the instantaneous moment.
After about ten minutes of this,
I remember barging into the secretary's office, next door to mine
and saying, "What the hell do you think you're doing?
"Why are you listening to my conversations?
"No, you're not entitled to do that, I don't want any more of it."
They then patiently explain to me
that every conversation conducted by a minister
is listened to by his or her civil servant.
Did that come as a surprise to you?
That someone listens in? It did.
And I didn't realise at first,
so you're having a conversation and Simon would come in
and I would start explaining, "I've had a phone call from Number Ten."
And he'd say, "Yes, I know, I was listening."
"Oh." It struck me as rather rude.
Of course, it's really important.
Most ministers except that for everything
apart from entirely private conversations,
an official will listen in to a conversation.
That's quite important and useful
because if you're not listening in,
no doubt somebody will be listening in at the other end
and you'll have a phone call where the other Private Office says, "You're minister said X."
If you haven't been listening, how do you know he said X rather than Y?
If I am having a phone call with a senior colleague,
another member of the Cabinet,
Lord knows how many people are listening,
probably four or five by the time you finish.
The person responsible for that area of policy,
someone from my private office, my colleagues.
And it's a way of not having to get into the car
and have a recorded meeting.
That's very important,
not least because it stops you arguing a week later
about what you did agree on
and also means that somebody automatically actions it.
There's always at least one person, sometimes a whole team,
it's a bloody spectator sport, making a phone call.
When it's really difficult, you know,
if it's an issue about
the spending review and you are negotiating with the Treasury
or a phone call with the Prime Minister.
You have lots of people,
everyone listening in at both ends of the phone call.
The Number Ten Private Office
is the nerve centre of Whitehall,
monitoring all calls and seeking to draw the positives
from face to face meetings that the PM holds.
When I was Health Secretary,
I had the most frightful rows with Margaret Thatcher.
I used to have one-to-ones with her in Downing Street.
They were the most unbelievable, lively rows,
both of us quite liked having lively political debate
but she could be pretty forceful.
And the private secretary from her office used to keep a minute
and decide what it was we'd agreed on
when you couldn't have got the two of us to agree on what we had agreed on.
My Private Office used to ring him up before I got back, he told me later,
and he would mark it on the Richter scale for liveliness
so they'd know what I would be like when I came in
and how lively this one had been.
A prime task for the civil servants in the Private Office network
across Whitehall is to deal with the vast flow of paperwork that comes in
requiring answers every day.
The Private Office has to go through it
and decide what they can deal with themselves
and what they should send up to the minister,
along with their advice and recommendations for action.
The Private Office have a very, very important sifting role.
Half the stuff the department wants me to see
is impossible for one man to see.
They have to decide on priority, have to decide on urgency,
and what the Secretary of State will either want to see or needs to see,
what he needn't see and what can just be farmed off.
A huge amount of information now comes into the Private Office -
far more than ever before.
And that puts a great burden and responsibility
on the people who do the sifting
because the Foreign Secretary still only has 24 hours in the day,
he still needs to sleep.
And therefore the people outside his office, the sifters,
who decide what he's going to see
are much more important than they used to be
because the volume of stuff arriving in that office is so huge.
You have to concentrate, like so many things,
on what is urgent and important
and what doesn't matter so much. It's probably got harder
with the number of e-mails coming in,
because often people now will copy in all ministers as an insurance policy
to say you have seen it.
The job of filtering of the Private Secretary
and the Private Office becomes even more important.
You never know what they have sifted
because you only see what comes to you.
But I never remember being let down by my Private Office,
my assumption is they did a first class job.
They know what you need to see
and things being copied that aren't relevant to you or don't affect you,
they save you the burden of sifting yourself.
If you could complete the first four by Saturday,
your driver could collect them and deliver the other two.
The famous red box is the focal point of the Private Office.
Every day Private Secretaries will pack at least one red box
full of important papers for the minister to deal with overnight.
The different Private Offices, like this one in the foreign office,
develop their own techniques to encourage ministers
to finish their boxes. They pack the papers in a special order,
with the simplest at the bottom.
We put in the signature folders first, mostly letters to other MPs
and to constituents which he has got to sign.
They are supposed to be the easiest.
And then things that are for information -
it might be some intelligence,
it might be letters from influential people
and then submissions, usually recommending action, or notes from us
saying, "We have a problem on this. What do you want to do about it?"
You open it up. On the very top will be the diary. Bright orange.
Underneath would be briefs for every meeting he has the next day.
One person from one of your Private Offices
told us that to encourage you to do your papers
they would put in a chocolate bar some way into the box
so you would work through it.
That's not true!
I'm not greatly into chocolate bars.
No, no, he or she has got the wrong minister.
They wouldn't get me with a chocolate bar.
Almost all women are accessory-conscientious,
characteristic of the gender.
Mrs Thatcher was too,
and so she and I would take home four red boxes a night
and rely on the fact we were...
able to sleep for less time than most men require
to get through these blasted boxes, hour after hour of them.
I had an arrangement with my Private Secretary -
he would signal in the box when I had reached the stage
that I didn't need to go any further.
There was a submission on a European Standard bus stop
which had come out of some crackpot conference
and what it meant was, everything above that,
as I worked through my box, that had to be done,
"Best done tonight if you can."
When I reached the European bus stop, firstly that was a little signal,
"Below this if you have got time. Below this is not a priority."
Some ministers do like...
taking the box home and working on it by themselves overnight.
Other ministers will take a box home
and it will come back in the morning.
I remember Ken Clarke would do that and sometimes say,
"I went to Ronnie Scott's last night."
The box remains undone in the morning.
What did you think of that?
It's a good idea to go out until 3am to listen to jazz at Ronnie Scott's,
and, on the whole,
Ken Clarke would catch up with the box during the day.
JAZZ MUSIC PLAYS
How long are you staying tonight?
Half eight Ministry of Defence tomorrow.
You're there later on, I think. One o'clock?
I was younger then. I haven't been to Ronnie's
for years, I'm far too old now.
But I used to go and when I first started I would go to Ronnie's
and get back home three in the morning
and then do the boxes still going the next day, usually.
I can't remember this occasion.
There's no point, if you're dropping asleep over a box
there is no point in do because you will make a frightful mess
of whatever you're reading and you will not remember it
or agree things you shouldn't.
Inside Number 10 the top box of all is packed
on the round table in the principal private secretary's office.
It's then taken to the Prime Minister.
One of Margaret Thatcher's private secretaries describes
how the Private Office seeks to help the Prime Minister reach decisions
on the contents of the red box.
What we try to do would on the top of any pile of
papers however complicated to strip it to its essentials.
Sometimes you could do it in one word.
"Prime Minister the Foreign Secretary says we should
"go to war with Iran, agree, question mark."
And she can write yes or no.
Sometimes you have to build that up into a fuller response.
If he has put in a lot of thought and it comes out
with no written with an exclamation mark you can't write back
saying the Prime Minister has read the Chancellor's paper and says no.
You have to draw on your knowledge of the Prime Minister's mind and perhaps
enlarge that into a paragraph of
carefully considered views, which are contrary to those of the Chancellor
of Exchequer leading to a balanced conclusion.
But that is part of the art and craft of the trade of private secretary.
Andrew Turnbull was Principal Private Secretary in the Number Ten
private office for many years and saw how different Prime Ministers
dealt with their red boxes.
Mrs Thatcher was legendary in doing the box. Many a time,
half past nine, ten o'clock
you go up to the flat in the evening,
ring the bell, drop the box in, run off and get home.
And come back, 8.30am the next morning and it's nearly all been read
and what's more nearly all been dispatched in
the sense of you have an answer.
John Major was also very diligent.
I would say he was as diligent and put in the work,
didn't have quite a high score on the decide factor.
You had a few more please refers but he was a believer in the daily box.
Tony Blair was much more, "I will only deal with the things that
"are important and deal with it at the weekend."
fortunately in Number 10 when
Prime Minister but he was also a slow decider.
One Number Ten official says that Gordon Brown would never finish
And as well as the red boxes the Prime Minister alone
gets another rather special box.
We had a separate box, which was of a different colour from the main box
for particularly sensitive papers, which only the Prime Minister
-and principal private secretary had access to.
-What colour was that box?
It was blue with a red stripe and it was known as old stripey.
And this had a secret intelligence files and the spy stuff?
And highly confidential stuff, not just intelligence but other
highly confidential and personal stuff,
which the principal private secretary was dealing with
directly with the Prime Minister.
And was old stripey the one
the Prime Minister would turn to first as far as you know?
Quite often it was because it tended to have
the sort of juicy stuff in it.
In the Number Ten private office there would be regular battles
over the red boxes between the civil servants and the political advisers.
There used to be the most unseemly competition
on Friday evening to get the last word onto the various papers
going into the Prime Minister's weekend box, under John Major or
under Mrs Thatcher. The Political Secretary, who would be a political
appointee, and the head of the Policy Unit, who was a political appointee,
would stay late and try and write a memo to put right on top of the
pile of papers saying, really, you should do this. Because they knew
that's what would get read first at least before all the rest was read.
But the Cabinet Secretary and Principal Private Secretary,
the two civil servants, were much cannier and would always outwait them
on a Friday evening to stick the very last word on top of their last words.
So there was no-one to arbitrate
those kind of disputes, and that's what we thought we needed.
Alastair Campbell and Jonathan Powell were New Labour's top two
special advisers, with the power to give orders to civil servants.
The Super Spads spawned a new satire.
-Malcolm, do you know...?
-Obviously, he knows.
No, he doesn't know...
There has been a massive, irretrievable data loss.
The last seven months' worth of new immigrant details have gone,
apparently, lost in the computer.
So, what is your great strategy for dealing with this?
Come on, I mean, I'm fuckin' all ears, I'm fuckin' Andrew Marr here!
Tony Blair was determined greatly
to strengthen the political side of the Number Ten Private Office.
He brought in a record number of 30 special advisers.
He wanted to ensure that ministers and their
Private Offices across Whitehall danced to Number Ten's tune.
Bloody Number Ten!
My special adviser on the
communications side, Chris Norton, got a phone call from Number Ten,
irate because they'd heard I was doing a 8.10 interview on
the Today programme, and there was all hell to pay.
What is he doing on there,
why's he doing it, what's the subject?
It was actually the BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was held hostage
for all that time, who was on the 8.10 interview on the BBC,
but someone at Number Ten had heard,
"At 8.10, we'll be talking to Alan Johnson." Whoosh... There were...
phone calls everywhere!
So you certainly weren't allowed to kind of, without Number Ten
knowing about it, be doing major radio or TV interviews.
When Johnson became Home Secretary two years ago, almost his first act
was to see that his four Spads would
have proper accommodation next to his own room and Private Office.
Let me go and have a look where they are.
-I need to know my Spads are comfortable.
They are, actually.
Johnson discovered that his Spads would have the room next door.
I know, we've got a sofa...
-Look at that!
That's not too bad actually, is it?
We promise not to use your loo when you're not there.
Yeah, that's great.
Can you remember, you were concerned about the office for your
special advisers and kept saying, "Where are my Spads going to sit?"
-Do you remember any of that?
-Er, yeah, I do, because,
you know, I'd been to places where the Spads were kind of
down the end of a very long corridor and a long way from you, and I'd been
in places where they were very close to me but in a little hovel.
I mean, I wanted to make sure they were properly looked after.
So, yes, that was a question -
a very important question - about how the mechanics...
They were actually through another door
in a very nice room, probably the best accommodation they've ever had.
Far too posh for them, in my view, but
they were through the door.
So we had kind of connecting doors,
we were in touch with each other, and that was important.
What is the role of the Spad?
Well, I guess it depends on the relationship with the minister,
but for me, it was always you're the eyes and ears of your minister...
along with the Private Office, you are that
barrier between the minister and an outside world that wants to, in many
respects, try and make your life much more difficult than it is,
or frustrate you in your objectives.
So you are an adviser on policy, you are an adviser on communications,
and you are an adviser - and this is where it changes from
the civil service - you are an adviser on political strategy,
and you can be party political and you're allowed to be.
And it's very important that you can do that, so that
you send the right signals and messages out to the public
in terms of what you're trying to achieve as a political party.
Part of it is ensuring that you don't
just become a little enclave where the only people you
talk to are your special advisers. You have to bring other people in.
The sensible Secretary of State will have their
Principal Private Secretary in with the special advisers.
They can't get involved in the political discussions
but they're there listening. The Principal Private Secretary
then works much better with the special advisers and as a result,
so does the whole department.
If special advisers
act purely with the minister and lock out
Private Office, lock out the rest of
the civil service, if the Secretary of State colludes in that, you will
have a disastrous department and a very unsuccessful Secretary of State.
The new Labour Transport Secretary, Stephen Byers, brought in his own
personally appointed special adviser called Jo Moore.
She alienated the Private Office by what they saw as her bullying style.
The department had become hugely controversial.
In a notorious e-mail on the day of the 9/11 attacks in Manhattan,
Jo Moore wrote it would be a very good day to get out any bad news
the Ministry wanted to bury.
The e-mail was sent to Alun Evans,
who'd been Principal Private Secretary
and was now the Transport Ministry's Director of Communications.
I was surprised.
It was a very unusual e-mail to have sent, I seem to recall.
But what did you think at that stage when you got an e-mail like that,
-"This would be a good day to bury bad news?"
-I was shocked by it.
Mr Byers, can you look up, please?
The political pressure on Stephen Byers had increased dramatically
after Jo Moore's e-mail was leaked from the Ministry to the media.
Is that all right with you, sir?
-No, get them out.
Would you mind, please? Just move out of here, please.
But Byers refused to sack Jo Moore, and she was kept hidden away until
it was decided she should make a ritual public apology.
I'd like to sincerely apologise for the huge offence that I caused
by sending the e-mail.
I can well understand the disgust people will feel with what I wrote.
I very much wish I hadn't written it.
In fact, I find it difficult to believe that I did write it.
Byers now faced calls to resign, as he stuck by Jo Moore.
And there was open conflict within the Ministry.
I think that the furore around that was actually a reflection of the
fact that the relationship between the Special Advisers' Office
and the civil service at the time was a poor one.
And from what I know from the background to that,
there was perhaps some high-handed activity on the part of
the special advisers there towards civil servants,
and civil servants then used the opportunity to get their revenge
in the best way possible, you know, as a dish served cold.
Ministry officials leaked stories about Jo Moore's behaviour.
The leaks were so damaging
that the top mandarin at Transport, Sir Richard Mottram, used the
strongest language to describe how bad the whole affair had been.
-I've nothing to say.
-Could you understand why
Richard Mottram said, "We're fucked, you're fucked, we're all fucked"?
Well, Richard, in Mottram-esque language, was capturing the
predicament the department was in at that time.
But I suppose in a way, that was
seen as the epitome of how a special adviser thinks...
It was, but I would say that was a great exception to the way many
special advisers work in the fact that there are one or two examples
where the relationship went wrong or, in that case, spectacularly wrong.
I don't think that takes away from the importance
of the special adviser role.
Jo Moore was on her bike, forced to resign, as was her minister.
Number Ten said there'd been "civil war" in the Ministry.
Although the number of special advisers had grown sharply
under New Labour, they weren't a New Labour invention.
There had been earlier spectacular examples
of how Spads could rupture relations not just within
a Ministry, but between departments, right up to the top of government.
One celebrated case involved the Treasury and Number Ten.
Professor Alan Walters,
a right-wing market economist, who'd been brought into Number Ten
by Margaret Thatcher, was to be her Special adviser on Economics.
But the Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, who'd begun as
a Mrs Thatcher favourite, came to resent Walters going
public with views on the economy, which differed sharply from his own.
The markets didn't know whether to believe what
the Chancellor was saying because, was that really the Government's
policy, or was the Government's policy a different policy,
which they were getting from the Prime Minister's personal adviser?
And that made it impossible, I felt, for me to do my job properly.
He objected to my having the Prime Minister's ear, and on pouring what
he regarded as poison down it, what I regarded as the truth.
Lawson delivered an ultimatum
to Mrs Thatcher, saying she had to choose between himself and Walters.
Nigel knocked me down with a feather.
For a Chancellor of the Exchequer with all of the importance and
reputation of that position to come to me and say, "Unless you sack one
"of your most loyal advisers, I will resign," I couldn't believe it!
I hated resigning.
It was certainly the last thing I wanted to do.
# There's a man that lives next door in my neighbourhood
# In my neighbourhood
# He gets me down...
The fraught relations between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown
were made worse over a decade by anonymous attacks by each side's
special advisers on the other.
One briefing dramatically raised the stakes.
A top-level Number Ten source with a good claim to know the mind of
the Prime Minister, described Gordon Brown as psychologically flawed.
The Brownites, including Ed Balls and the spin doctor Charlie Whelan,
Gordon Brown was very upset,
and rightly so, because that's not the sort of thing that you expect
from Number Ten.
So he was very upset.
Where do you think the psychologically flawed came from?
According to the people who've
written about these things, it came from Alastair Campbell.
That's certainly where we thought it came from.
Well, that's not true.
-It's not true?
-No, it's not true.
-You didn't say that?
No. Yeah, absolutely not true.
-You did not say that?
-Um, you surprise me.
-Well, there you are.
You get surprised by a lot of things, Michael.
While New Labour's top two attempted a public show of unity, the Spads,
in their Private Offices, escalated the war of smear and counter smear.
When Matthew Taylor - a new Political Strategy Adviser -
arrived at Number Ten, he sought to negotiate
a peace treaty between the warring Private Offices of the tribes.
One of my many examples of naivety going into Number Ten was thinking
that I could overcome the Gordon Brown-Tony Blair conflict, that I
was somebody who liked Tony personally, absolutely understood
what a brilliant politician he was, but actually had a bit more sympathy
for Gordon and his kind of Social-Democratic credentials.
I was the person to bring peace to this! And I remember every week,
I used to go for a walk in the park
for the first few months with Ed Miliband, who was working for Gordon.
We'd walk round the park and I would try and be as open and discursive
with Ed as I possibly could about what Number Ten was doing.
I would say, you know, I'm not sure Tony's right about this, I'm trying
to persuade him on this one and that one and the other.
And we'd get to the end of the walk, coming out of St James's Park,
and there'd be a pause and I'd wait for Ed to share with me
what was happening in the Treasury and where Gordon's persuasions were
and where his preferences lay, and there'd be nothing.
Ed would just say, "Thanks for that," and he would disappear back into
the Treasury. So I did that for a few weeks
and then came to realise it was pretty futile.
The war reached new levels of resentment and vehemence,
as relations between Ten and Eleven went into meltdown.
Can you understand why it is that special advisers are seen as part of
the blackouts and the dirty-tricks department,
and smearing people, including their own colleagues?
Well, I think... I mean, that did go
on and I know it went on under Labour when we were in government.
Not systematically, there were
-individuals who were motivated to do that.
-Why have you stood down?
The macho style of some prominent New Labour spin doctors like
Charlie Whelan and Alastair Campbell was taken to a new level
by Damian McBride.
His proposed sex-smear e-mails against top Tories
made The Thick Of It seem more documentary than satire.
Do not make this a disciplinary issue, do you hear me, soldier?!
I found her! I found...
She was on the fuckin' news! Get this guy out of here!
-This is not a fuckin' discussion!
-Right, nobody argue, OK?
I am going to go in there and I am going to take...
-No, you're fuckin' not!
-You've hurt yourself.
Oh, I've got so much on as it is!
-You hit me!
-I did not hit you.
I'm going to hit the fuckin' wall and pull my fist back and hit you in
the fuckin' face instead.
-I think you've broken my nose!
-No, that's my just a scratch, mate.
How accurate a portrayal do you think The Thick Of It is?
Well, I think there are a few I can remember who actually
would model themselves on the Malcolm Tucker character,
who actually see that as the way you do things. But that wouldn't be me.
My goal was to have good relationships with Private Office,
because they're that line of defence for your minister
against the wider civil service and the media and the world.
The first ever televised Leaders' Debates dominated
last year's General Election.
Facing Gordon Brown were two former Spads, David Cameron and Nick Clegg.
Journalists watched the debate in the media centre
that became known as "Spin Alley".
Three men, each of whom wants to be our next Prime Minister.
Every promise you hear from each of us this evening depends
on one thing, a strong economy...
The New Labour spadocracy followed the debate in a private room.
Get the positions right now
and we can have secure jobs, we can have standards of living rising...
As the debate ended, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson,
Labour's campaign manager, sought to spin
the journalists against Cameron.
It's precisely that sort of arrogance, that sense of entitlement
that Mr Cameron exudes.
George Osborne, Cameron's fellow ex-Spad, was also spinning.
Osborne was briefing Ben Brogan,
Political Editor of the Conservative Daily Telegraph.
Ben, Ben, Ben?
Tell George what to say...
Go on... No, George, don't be put off your stride.
But back in his Whitehall Ministry, on the eve of the General Election,
Peter Mandelson, the prototype political adviser
who'd become Gordon Brown's highest-ranking minister,
prepared to thank the civil servants who ran his Private Office.
I've got some very, very good news...
Win or lose, I could just stay!
Obviously, if we win, it would be business as usual and I could just
take decisions, sign warrants, dispense money like a Bourbon king!
If we don't win,
I still stay, but help whoever comes in.
I'm not able to go round the whole department
thanking everyone individually,
but I can thank you because you've been so wonderful for me.
You've just supported me and just given me the time of my life.
The election saw the triumph of the Spads, who now held the two
highest offices in the land.
And another Spad graduate from
Private Office was the new Chancellor.
And four out of five of the candidates for the job of
Leader of the Opposition to Osborne, Clegg and Cameron were also Spads.
Ed Miliband received 19.934%.
Ed Miliband had beaten his older brother.
Ed had worked in
Gordon Brown's Private Office, while David had worked for Blair.
Like Cameron, the brothers had read
PPE at Oxford, as had fellow Spad Ed Balls, who became Shadow Chancellor.
MPS: Hear, hear!
Speaker, I do say to him, there is increasing concern
about the Government's competence.
Mr Speaker, does the Prime Minister think it's just a problem with the
Foreign Secretary, or is it a wider problem in his government?
First of all, he raises the issue of the Foreign Secretary.
Let me tell you, I think we have an excellent Foreign Secretary.
And when it comes to it, there's only one person I can remember round
here knifing a Foreign Secretary, and I think I'm looking at him!
Over the past 50 years, the arrival of the special
advisers has dramatically altered the balance of power in Whitehall.
The new professional political class
that cut its teeth in the Private Offices
and was famously characterised as "the people who live in the dark"
has grown to take over the reins of power.
In constitutional theory, the Head of Government was first
among equals, but these days, the Prime Minister of Britain
is first among Spads.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Michael Cockerell reveals what really happens in the hidden power houses of Whitehall, the cabinet minister's private office. These are where political advisers have bloody battles with civil servants for the hearts and minds of their ministers, from where gaffes are averted and plots hatched. Mixing rare archive with candid interviews, the programme tells the story of what goes on within this most influential of secret networks.