SARAH VINE: Rein in these mischievous Westminster elves before they lose the plot

The role of the special adviser is a murky one in politics. In fact, it’s fair to say that most normal people don’t even know the job exists. 

They assume – not entirely unreasonably – that the MPs and Ministers we elect to run the country are, for the most part, the architects of their own ideas and policies.

To some extent that is true. Elected members hold the reins of Government, decide the general direction of travel and overall strategy. 

But when it comes to the details, the nitty-gritty, the day-to-day micro-decisions that make up the overall picture, it’s the unelected special advisers – aka Spads – who really matter.

As a breed, they remind me rather of Dobby the house elf in Harry Potter. Although physically very different – house elves are small, wizened creatures, whereas Spads are generally absurdly young and good-looking, with shiny first-class degrees and slim-fit shirts that show off their toned abs – in every other respect they fit the profile perfectly.

Last week, Liam Booth-Smith (pictured with Rishi Sunak), the Chancellor’s Chief of Staff, aka top Spad, has been accused of briefing against the Prime Minister in a bid to promote his man

Intensely tribal, not afraid to get their hands dirty and always on hand, night or day, to do their master’s – or mistress’s – bidding.

I’ve known them to take Ministers clothes shopping, help organise personal training, choose ties, recommend hairdressers, pop to the shops for emergency tights, order Deliveroo, pay traffic fines.

They write speeches, devise strategies, broker deals and advise on policies. Crucially, and unlike civil servants, they are on the Minister’s side.

Most of the time they are charming, affable creatures, eager to please and a joy to have around. But cross them, or their boss, and they swiftly turn to the dark arts. 

Uniquely skilled – often surprisingly so given their tender age – they can perform feats of magic no one quite understands, but which invariably result in their enemies having a very unpleasant time of it indeed.

Last week has been a case in point. Liam Booth-Smith, the Chancellor’s Chief of Staff (aka top Spad) has been accused of briefing against the Prime Minister in a bid to promote his man.

It was claimed Booth-Smith was the source behind a tweet by BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, which said: ‘There is a lot of concern inside the building about the PM. It’s just not working.’

Whether he was or not, the fact that Booth-Smith was a Dominic Cummings appointment (former house elf in chief, and the most mischievous of them all) has not helped the Treasury’s denials.

Spads often lose the plot when their employers finally achieve power. It happened to Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell– and, of course, to Boris Johnson (pictured) and Dominic Cummings

The truth is that sort of behaviour is true to form. In fact, given my experience of Spads over the years and the feverish, gladiatorial atmosphere that prevails among these Westminster demigods, it doesn’t surprise me one bit.

Because Spads aren’t in it just to make sure their bosses don’t embarrass themselves. They know Spaddery is a path to power. The kind of power that requires no accountability and carries no responsibility. 

The greater their Minister’s prestige, the more power comes their way. Important people begin to take notice of them, invitations come their way, doors that were previously locked begin to open. They become the conduit for influence – an intoxicating notion for anyone. 

That is why they often lose the plot when their employers do finally achieve power. Unbridled by the codes of conduct that govern civil servants (although technically they are supposed to abide by the same standards), they begin to throw their weight around. 

It happened to Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell, to David Cameron and Steve Hilton – and, of course, to Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings.

As entertaining as this may be for those in Westminster, for the rest of the country it’s not only deeply off-putting, but also counterproductive.  

And while no one is suggesting that Spads don’t have a significant role to play in the business of government, the time has surely come to rein Dobby in.

I realise this makes me a bad person, but it brings me considerable joy that ‘healthy’ vegan meals have been found to contain higher levels of salt than ‘evil’ meat versions. 

I don’t mind what people eat – but vegan evangelists can be awfully smug. This might shut them up. For about three seconds. 

Trust psychologists to come up with a test to check whether your cat is a psychopath. Whatever next?

A quiz to determine if the Pope has a tendency to be Catholic? 


Judging by Madonna’s latest Instagram pictures of her buttocks and breasts in various stages of surgical enhancement, I think the 63-year-old might feel more comfortable with the ‘content creators’ on OnlyFans… 

Judging by Madonna’s latest Instagram pictures, I think the 63-year-old might feel more comfortable with the ‘content creators’ on OnlyFans…

MP Claudia Webbe ascribes the Channel deaths to ‘Western imperialism and vile bigotry’ and says Britain has a ‘crisis of humanity’. 

This from a woman convicted of harassing a friend of her partner with abusive phone calls, accusing her of being a ‘slag’ and threatening to attack her with acid. 

And they say irony is dead. 

Isn’t it amazing the lengths to which companies will go to maximise profits? 

A team of researchers found supermarket trolleys with handles at the side – like a wheelbarrow – make us spend 25 per cent more than the traditional ones. 

Something to do with using our biceps, which are ‘lifting’ muscles, instead of our triceps, which are for pushing. 

All very well, but I bet they can’t solve the mystery of why I ALWAYS get the trolley with the wonky wheel.

I’m sorry, but ‘Omicron’ sounds like some Marvel supervillain or giant prehistoric sea monster. 

Either someone at the WHO is having a laugh or they’re doing it on purpose to heighten the sense of impending doom. Or both.


Simon Case, the head of the Civil Service, has said the unsayable: Whitehall officials do not have the skills and experience to address the country’s biggest challenges.

Of course, Ministers have been saying this about civil servants for years – think of John Reid in 2006 declaring the Home Office ‘unfit for purpose’. 

But for a man in Case’s position to acknowledge the problem so openly is significant, not to mention admirable. 

That said, I don’t expect ‘the Blob’ will take kindly to his candour. Do send me your address, Simon, and I’ll send you one of my spare tin hats.

Richard Madeley claims that he’s ‘gutted’ not to be able to return to Gwrych Castle to continue his I’m A Celebrity ordeal. Seriously? 

Richard Madeley claims that he’s ‘gutted’ not to be able to return to Gwrych Castle to continue I’m A Celebrity. No more eating fried squirrel for dinner – and he still gets his £200,000 fee?

No more diving face-first into fish guts or eating fried squirrel for dinner – and he still gets his £200,000 fee? Call me a cynic, but it looks like he’s played a blinder. 


On the surface, the Government’s Conversion Therapy (Prohibition) Bill seems like a humane idea. The aim is to stop gay people under the age of 18 from being victimised or coerced into denying their sexual orientation. 

All well and good, surely? Well, not exactly. The Bill also includes children who want to undergo hormone treatment for gender reassignment.

There is a big difference between sexual orientation and gender. Who a person loves does not alter them irreversibly; who they want to be, in terms of gender, can. 

Under the scope of this Bill, it is possible that a parent of a child contemplating irreversible hormone therapy could end up in court for questioning their child’s decision.

This has already happened in Canada, where a father was jailed for six months this year after objecting to his troubled daughter transitioning fully to a male. 

He felt she had been led on by outside influences, including medical professionals, and was uncomfortable with her making an irreversible choice which she might later regret.

Of course, we shouldn’t deny trans people the chance to be happy in their own skins. But we must safeguard immature brains from doing things they can never go back on. That was the case with Keira Bell, who transitioned as a teenager and has since changed her mind. 

She will have to live the rest of her life with the consequences – facial hair, a double mastectomy, fertility problems. If we take away the right of parents to ask questions, how many others will suffer her fate? 

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