LONDON — Sometimes the best advice is the hardest to hear.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson now gets publicly lashed by government advisers on a near-daily basis. Scientific experts who sit on official panels openly urge him go for tougher coronavirus restrictions, and he has taken flak this week from child welfare and food advisers amid a bitter row over extending the provision of free school meals.
Independent advisers have long piled pressure on governments, whatever their political stripe — but the pandemic has raised the stakes.
Paul Harrison, a former Downing Street spokesman under the premiership of Theresa May, said there was “a new and different dynamic at play between government and its advisers right now,” which he said was a “direct result” of the COVID crisis.
A reliance on scientists at the start of the pandemic to inform the public and boost transparency thrust experts into the spotlight, Harrison said, giving them more authority and prominence. “COVID will be with us longer than anyone would like. That changed dynamic, where ‘the science’ has a public face and a private one, is here to stay too.”
That dynamic, some believe, has seen advisers and even senior government officials sucked into Westminster’s briefing wars, with those on the government’s scientific advisory panels tempted to sound off to the media in anticipation of the inevitable blame game.
One former government aide said “self preservation” could drive advisers concerned about their future employment prospects to make their own case, amid numerous reports pointing the finger at the machine. “A lot of the scientists have seen that perhaps this government doesn’t have their back when it comes to the media,” the person said. “And so rather than letting senior government sources control the narrative, they’re doing it themselves.”
In addition, the public prominence of advisers and Johnson’s perceived reliance on them means the public is taking more notice. “These people have always been quite noisy and outspoken,” the same person said. “But I think the truth is, most people haven’t cared.”
Beware the celeb
Aside from the straight up political aide, there are broadly three types of adviser to British governments, with varying degrees of freedom to criticize administrations.
At the top sit fully signed-up civil servants who comment at the discretion of ministers and are not expected to go public with criticism while in post. At the bottom are those independent advisers who sit on expert panels such as the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group. These experts can comment in the media in a personal capacity.
In the middle are senior people, who are sometimes high-profile figures from outside Whitehall altogether, drafted in to advise on and review particular issues. TV personality Mary Portas oversaw a review of high streets under former Prime Minister David Cameron, for example, and food writer and restaurant chain founder Henry Dimbleby was called on by Johnson to work on food strategy.
These celebrity advisers can be the most risky appointments, as their existing prominence with the public gives them huge media cachet. Indeed, Dimbleby made the front page of the Times on Wednesday for his criticism of Johnson, after the prime minister refused to fund free meals for the poorest children during the school holidays.
“Anyone the government has commissioned to do reviews, like celebrities, are impossible to control,” the former aide quoted above said. “Especially because they have their own PR team and their objectives are different to the government.”
The person added: “There’s a bit of naivety in assuming that when you hire these people they will stick to the government line.”
Alex Thomas, a former senior civil servant and now program director at the Institute for Government, said people appointed to these independent positions will weigh up how bold to be in their criticisms of the government. Going public could be the most effective course of action in getting their message across, but it could also put ministerial backs up and even cost them reappointment.
“They respond to the conditions at the time,” he said. “If they think the government is doing something demonstrably wrong, and private channels have failed, they might say something more publicly.”
Some who are vocally against the government could find their recommendations sidelined or even ignored, Thomas added, defeating the point of working with ministers in the first place. “It’s a fine line for the individual because they want to influence internally and maintain the confidence of the government, but not lose their public voice,” he said.
Ultimately, when the government asks for advice it has to take the rough with the smooth.
“In a free society I don’t think you can complain about it,” said Andrew Mitchell, the former Cabinet minister. “If you have an independent expert who is appointed because of their expertise, and who then does indeed speak out, I think the government is more or less obliged to suck it up.”