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No 10 orders shake-up of Whitehall adviser hiring

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Downing Street is ordering a shake-up of the way ministerial aides are recruited in the latest shift for an increasingly centralised government operation orchestrated by Boris Johnson’s closest ally.

Sky News has learnt that Number 10 has sanctioned an overhaul of the appointments process for the cabal of Whitehall special advisers (SpAds) who help shape the communications and digital agendas of government departments.

The new approach to hiring these SpAds will see open application processes for the roles, which have often been filled by party loyalists.

It is said to be designed to encourage more recruits from the corporate and professional arena with experience of advising business leaders and other senior figures – and fewer “Westminster lifers”.

According to a job advert placed on www.spadjobs.uk, a new website, on Thursday afternoon, Downing Street wants applicants with a “track record of success working in communications or digital fields to apply” to help “effectively tackle long-term problems and take advantage of the opportunities Brexit has opened up”.

The overhaul comes during a period of controversy for Boris Johnson’s administration over the way SpAds have been dealt with by No 10.

While they are political appointees, they are employed by the state rather than political parties.

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This month, Sajid Javid resigned as the chancellor after refusing to sack his team of advisers and accept a group appointed by No 10.

Sajid Javid talking in the House of Commons.
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Mr Javid had previously been angered by a decision last summer by Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, to sack Sonia Khan, his media adviser, over her alleged contact with Philip Hammond – Mr Javid’s predecessor as chancellor and an ardent anti-Brexiteer.

It emerged on Monday that the Cabinet Office was seeking to appoint a human resources official to oversee the interests of Whitehall SpAds.

There was further controversy last week when Andrew Sabisky, who had been hired by Mr Cummings to work as an adviser in No 10, resigned over remarks he had previously made about eugenics and black people.

Mr Sabisky had been responding to a recent appeal from Mr Cummings to attract “misfits and weirdos” with different perspectives into government.

Dominic Cummings, special adviser for PM Johnson, is seen at Downing Street
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His brief tenure sparked criticism – including from some current ministers – of the vetting procedures used by Downing Street.

Under the new appointments system for media and digital SpAds, candidates will be screened and vetted by the Conservative Party.

They will then be interviewed by telephone before proceeding to a further interview with a panel including Isaac Levido, who directed the Tories’ recent general election campaign.

Lee Cain, the Downing Street communications director, will have the final say on all appointment decisions.

Insiders said that corporate affairs headhunters and former special advisers from Hanbury Strategy, a strategic advisory firm which also played a role in the election campaign, had been lined up to support the process.

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The drive to entice more people into government from the private sector comes a decade after the Tories began appointing senior business figures directly onto the boards of Whitehall departments in an effort to inject greater commercial discipline into the way government was run.

Since then, the likes of Sir Ian Cheshire, the former Kingfisher CEO, former Standard Life chairman Sir Gerry Grimstone, and former Co-op Group chief executive Richard Pennycook have chaired departmental boards.

Sir Ian is also the government’s overall lead non-executive director.

Ironically, the effort to recruit more SpAds with experience of advising business leaders comes as the PM prepares to disband the network of councils populated by private sector bosses that was set up by Theresa May, his predecessor.

Sky News revealed last week that Mr Johnson is likely to replace the five separate committees with a single, smaller group of advisers – if he opts for such an arrangement at all.

A No 10 source said on Thursday: “We want to find experienced candidates who are prepared to work hard and help us unleash Britain’s potential – in particular, we want people who have a background in advising business leaders and SMEs.

“Currently, talent is spread equally around the country but opportunity isn’t.

“We want to change that and encourage people from all backgrounds to come and help us build a brighter future for our country.”

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