I wonder if you know what a SPAD is. I discovered today, when listening to the wireless’s one o’clock news programme. A SPAD is a minister’s special adviser. He or she is paid a vast salary for telling the minister to ignore the advice of the civil service. Almost all cabinet ministers now have SPADS. I have to say that I don’t think that to be a healthy state of affairs. But it’s how government now works. Who am I to suggest it might be wrong?
Anyway, Mrs May is trying to outdo all her predecessors in her generosity to her own SPADS (I think she calls them chiefs of staff rather than special advisers). She has two of them. They are called Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill. Sensibly, Mrs May, on taking office, decreed that no SPAD should be paid more than £72,000 a year. At almost the same moment she doubled her own SPADS’ salaries (who came with her from the Home Office) to £140,000 a year each.
As far as I can gather, Mr Timothy and Ms Hill devote most of their time to denigrating cabinet ministers. I am told they are not very popular, other than with Mrs May herself. But that wouldn’t matter all that much if they were giving the Prime Minister sensible advice. Sadly, it seems they are not.
I wonder if you heard Mrs May’s appalling performance on the television today. She was being interviewed by Andrew Marr. He was asking her about a malfunction in a Trident missile on a recent test. What he wanted to know was whether she had known about the malfunction at the time of a recent House of Commons debate on the future of Trident. That was a perfectly reasonable question to ask. Answering it would obviously not be a breach of national security. But Mrs May refused, four times, to give an answer. She sounded as shifty as Michael Howard did in his famous interview by Jeremy Paxman. Why did she behave so idiotically?
The answer, it seems, is that her SPADS had told her not to answer the question. What on earth can their reasoning have been? I can only assume that Mrs May knew about the malfunction, that Mr Timothy and Ms Hill thought it would damage her for that to be known and that they concluded that, if she declined to answer the question, the flak would be directed at the Defence Secretary rather than her. It is enough to say that their ludicrous advice has backfired horribly.
As it happens, it transpires that the malfunction was not nearly as serious as the BBC and the newspapers are suggesting. Admiral Lord West, a former Labour Defence minister, was entirely persuasive on the wireless in explaining that the problem was a minor one and had been sorted out. As he said, it could not reasonably have been used as a reason for our abandoning our nuclear deterrent. He thought the problem should not have been concealed. It was not a state secret. The Russians would have been told about the test before it took place. They would have been monitoring it and immediately known it had gone wrong.
It was undoubtedly an error of judgment for the government to try to keep the malfunction secret when it was almost certain that it would eventually be discovered and revealed. But coming clean about it now would surely have been better than shiftily refusing to answer Mr Marr’s question.
In future Mrs May should rely on her own judgment and be very wary of following the advice of her overpaid SPADS.