The Constitution Unit of University College London has researched the frequency of special advisers – the counterparts of ministerial advisers in New Zealand and Australia – becoming Ministers. The findings suggest that a role of special adviser provides the ladder to a political career, but there is no assurance of becoming a Minister.
Although former special advisers are to be found in many senior political positions, the speed with which both the British Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have progressed from special adviser to Minister and then to their leadership roles is exceptional.
The research shows that 16 former special advisers became a Minister over the last 30 plus years ( Cabinet has 22 members at any one time. ) Although there were four former special advisers in the Gordon-Brown Cabinet, that was the highest ever. As fewer than 5% of special advisers have progressed to Cabinet since1979, it is a misperception that special advisers are Ministers in waiting.
Few Ministers have been special advisers. This means most in Cabinet have not had that experience and confirms that politics does not have a natural career path. The Constitutional Unit blog suggests though, that the skills of the leaders of both the Conservative and Labour parties in Britain are due to the skills and political networks that they developed during their time as a special adviser.
A former ministerial adviser in Australia last year blogged about the contribution of ministerial advisers – and referred to Eichbaum and Shaw’s findings that New Zealand public servants had confidence in their ministerial adviser colleagues. However a preponderance of 112 reader responses was critical of the contribution of ministerial advisers.
The benefits of special adviser experience advocated by Lord Adonis as an apprenticeship for aspirant British Ministers may be less self evident than he believes.