Jon Craig: Good luck to my mates, the new special advisers

Written by Jon Craig on 26 August 2016 in Opinion

Ex-journalists may not always make the best special advisers, but they are definitely at an advantage.

Very soon after I joined Sky News back in 2003, I went to Brussels to cover a NATO summit. The producer sent along to keep an eye on the new boy was one of Sky's deputy news editors at the time, a former Scotsman and Daily Record journalist, Fiona Hill.

Now she's joint chief of staff to the Prime Minister - one of three ex-Sky people on Theresa May's ever-growing spad list - and I wish her well! (There would have been four, had our former deputy political editor Joey Jones gone to work in No. 10, which many of us expected.)

Fiona and I met at the Eurostar terminal, which was at Waterloo in those days, and hit it off immediately. Who wouldn't? Our railway station meeting was to be no brief encounter. Over the years we've socialised lot. I was at her wedding to TV exec Tim Cunningham (reception at Wentworth Golf Club) and she came to my (more modest) 50th birthday lunch.

I wouldn't say ex-journalists always make the best spads. Some former party press officers are pretty good too. But I'd definitely say it's a huge advantage to understand how political correspondents operate. 

Jeremy Corbyn's The Thick Of It-style "Traingate" fiasco demonstrates just how he could do with some media savvy spads in his team right now.

After Sky News, Fiona Hill did a few PR jobs and had a spell as a Conservative Party press officer, looking after the likes of Chris Grayling and David "Treat Me" Ruffley. Ruffers (a challenging person to work for, shall we say?) thought he could be his own press officer and Fiona had to deal with that.

She began working for Theresa May during the 2010 general election campaign, after a few attempts to win selection as a parliamentary candidate. One seat she went for was Spelthorne and I remember her dragging poor Tim off to watch Staines Town on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Such dedication!



But is it Fiona's dedication to Theresa May at the Home Office that will have been ideal preparation for the job she's doing now. And the new PM's spad appointments reveal that she chooses people she trusts and whose loyalty she can rely on.

Her director of communications, Katie Perrior, has reminded me that she first became a Tory press officer in 1999 and was Theresa May's press officer when she was Tory chairman in 2002-03. Recently hired Jimmy McLoughlin, the target for cronyism allegations because he's the son of Tory chairman Patrick, has been rewarded for his impressive work on the new PM's Tory leadership campaign.

It's claimed that Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, the other joint chief of staff, are vetting the spad appointments. I'm sure that's true. And why not? The appointment of James Chapman, formerly Remain cheerleader George Osborne's spokesman at the Treasury, as Brexiteer David Davis's spad has Fiona's fingerprints all over it. 

They were great allies when she was at the Home Office and James was political editor of the Daily Mail. James will also bring some discipline and order to the somewhat scattergun approach DD has adopted in the past.

Is James No. 10's nark in Davis's office? It looks a bit like that. When Hayden Allan was sent from the Tory press office to be Liam Fox's spad at the Ministry of Defence in 2010 it was widely assumed he was going there to be Andy Coulson's nark, keeping an eye on Liam for No. 10. Liam always denied that, but others swear it was true.

Hayden stayed at the MoD, however, when Philip Hammond replaced Liam Fox and is still with him at the Treasury. 

Which brings me to another Sky News colleague, Poppy Trowbridge, who is to be Philip Hammond's other spad.

Poppy, born in the UK (I believe) but brought up in Canada, hence the accent, has always been a true Tory believer. Years back she had a spell working for Michael Howard. On economics, she's dry as dust. But socially she's great fun, with a fondness for vodka martinis on a Friday evening in the Canton Arms, near her home in Stockwell.

Some people claim Philip Hammond is dry as dust too, to the point of being boring. But I've always thought he's not to be under-estimated. He has already let it be known that George Osborne's hard hat and yellow jacket photo-ops (a creation of his ex-BBC spad Thea Rogers) have been ditched and that he will be a full-time Chancellor, unlike his predecessor, who was David Cameron's chief political strategist as well as trying to run the economy.



We shall miss Poppy at Sky News. She's been one of the most hard working and dedicated correspondents, regularly working punishingly long hours. (Ideal preparation for being a SPAD, you might say.)

The other ex-Sky News spad is Peter Cardwell, a surprise appointment (to many of us) as aide to the new Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire. Peter was a political producer with us at Westminster before joining ITV's Good Morning Britain recently.

He's a farmer's son from Northern Ireland and has a appetite to match his beefy physique. No one who works with Peter will ever go hungry. On a Saturday evening shift in Sky's Millbank office Peter would always order takeaway pizza, curry, Chinese or Thai and then tell everyone what we'd eaten in his handover at the end of the weekend.

Come to think of it, tiny James Brokenshire looks like he could do with putting a bit of weight on!

The other eye-catching - and surprising - appointment to the spad list is Sun political journalist Craig Woodhouse, appointed by the new Culture Secretary, Karen Bradley. Craig is currently Press Gallery chairman - and doing a very good job - and I've always thought of him as a future political editor of either the Sun or another paper. What a waste! But I'm sure - based on my views of being an ex-hack being a big advantage - he'll do very well.

Good luck to these and all the others. It's not a career that appeals to me, though!

A rewarding career? When Fiona Hill and I used to meet for a sharpener in the Osteria dell' Angolo (known to lobby correspondents as the Nancy Dell' Olio) in Marsham Street during her Home Office days, the staff there used to call her "Lady Cunningham". I teased her that it was only a matter of time.

Of course, after David Cameron's gongs for cronies resignation honours list, we now know that spads do end up in the House of Lords! 

I'm not sure the current Prime Minister would produce such a tacky honours list, however. And I think it'll be some time yet before any of my former Sky News colleagues are sent to the Lords for services to spadding.



Pictures by Press Association Images.



About the author

Jon Craig is chief political correspondent at Sky News.

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