“Parliament is as popular as the clap.”

Anonymous Downing Street adviser

“Advisers advise; and Ministers decide.”

Margaret Thatcher

HE likes a quote, does Dominic Cummings. The Prime Minister’s chief adviser might or might not have been the author of an 800 word note to a Spectator journalist setting out the dire consequences for anyone who dared to scupper the UK’s exit from the EU on October 31, but several Tory MPs, including former Minister Amber Rudd, thought they saw his fingerprints all over it. Eight hundred words, eh? Someone was quite the demented woodpecker.

Complaints were made in the Commons about intemperate language from Number 10, and fevered brows were duly soothed by Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Mr Gove knows Mr Cummings well. When the Scot became Education Secretary he brought him into Government as his adviser. Their ties go back even further, some 20 years, to when they were both starting out in their careers.

Mr Gove is in a select club of those who can claim familiarity with Mr Cummings. Others look to his blog for clues, which is where they will find quote after quote, from TS Eliot to From Russia With Love (“the movie not the book”, he helpfully points out), to back up his philosophy of government, the universe and everything. If you have an extremely high boredom threshold, and a liking for the kind of macho guano contained in the business section at airport bookshops, I can thoroughly recommend it.

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The Number 10 aide is not the first adviser to provoke interest. From Marcia Falkender and Alastair Campbell to Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill (made CBEs by their old boss, Theresa May) there is a special circle in political anorakdom reserved for those unelected individuals who serve elected politicians.

The latest data on special advisers in the UK Government puts their number at 99. Their salaries, which can range from £53,000 to £142,000, cost the taxpayer £8 million. But they are everywhere where politicians gather, from Bute House to the White House, and rarely will you know them by name. Lobby journalists know them, they know each other, and the civil servants know them, but generally speaking the special adviser, or Spad, is the man or woman standing out of sight of the cameras. Like journalists, when they become the story it is time to go. Think Jo Moore, the Labour adviser who will forever be known for saying 9/11 was a “good day to bury bad news”.

Every so often, as in the Moore case, or when a question is asked about the number of advisers and their cost to the public purse, Spads will come under the spotlight, only to fade away again when something more interesting turns up. Mr Cummings has changed that. From sacking a member of staff and having them marched off the premises, as happened with an aide to the Chancellor, Sajid Javid, to ramping up the political temperature, Mr Cummings is rewriting the rules as he goes. Such is Boris Johnson’s reliance on him that he is less a mere aide and more a de facto deputy Prime Minister.

Special advisers are nothing new. From the first time someone claimed power over others, courts have had their courtiers. Whether in government or out, their tasks are many and varied. They are supposed to be their boss’s eyes and ears, there to pick up on things in advance. They think ahead in other ways, planning the direction of policy, the subjects for legislation or other action. Crucially, they have some control over access to the politician and cling to it for dear life. If anyone can have the ear of the minister, why do they need you?

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Special advisers stayed for the most part behind the curtain until Harold Wilson’s resignation honours of 1976. The “lavender list” of recipients, some of them highly questionable, was said to have been drawn up on coloured notepaper by Wilson’s chief aide, Marcia Falkender. She denied doing so.

Lady Falkender, who died earlier this year, was valued by Wilson for her insights into the minds of so-called ordinary voters; she was a tireless planner; and she was not afraid of making enemies in the party or in the civil service, especially the latter. The agenda, Wilson’s agenda, had to get through. Remind you of anyone?

Labour politicians seem to have a thing for the adviser as enforcer. Though neither individual will relish the companion, this year’s Dominic Cummings was yesteryear’s Alastair Campbell. Tony Blair’s spokesman wielded extraordinary power, right up to and including putting a case together for war that turned out to be entirely wrong. Campbell’s chief asset, as far as Blair was concerned, was his willingness to be an attack dog on the boss’s behalf.

One can understand why political leaders like to surround themselves with special advisers. As many a memoir sets out, it is tough and lonely at the top. A bad day at the office for most folk is just that, a bad day. For a leader it can be a catastrophe. The stream of questions is relentless, the need to make a decision always pressing. Who would not want to turn to a friendly face, someone you knew was in your corner, at such times? Before the special adviser came along there were such people. There still are such people. They are called civil servants. They can give impartial advice because their tenure is not tied to any one politician or administration.

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Another argument in favour of special advisers is that they bring new voices and viewpoints into government. Except if you had ever met one you would know they did the opposite. The special adviser is a symptom of the wholly unhealthy professionalisation of politics. They look like the politicians they serve, they think like them, and they want the same job eventually.

But where is the ultimate harm, you might think, particularly given the modern Spad has to abide by a code of conduct. The power and influence exercised by Mr Cummings, which seems to be above that of a Cabinet Minister, suggests the need for a new code. Better still, there should be a review of paid aides in general and a presumption against employing them.

As for Mr Cummings, he knows, as a student of politics, that the ultimate job of an adviser is to act as a shield to their employer. Shields can always be replaced.