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Powerful advice

The text messages became increasingly hostile.

First, there was a warning to be “careful”.

Then, I was accused of relying on “very dodgy....single sourcing”.

Finally came a thinly-veiled threat that there’d be a complaint to my “bosses”.

It was April 2012, and Theresa May’s Special Adviser (SPAD), Fiona Cunningham, was attempting to stop a damaging story from gaining traction.

The Home Secretary, as she was then, had made a mistake over timings relating to an appeal against deportation brought on behalf of the radical Islamist cleric, Abu Qatada. It was an embarrassing error which had led to unfavourable newspaper headlines and cast doubt on May’s competence less than two years into the job.

Cunningham, who’s now known as Fiona Hill, was doing what any SPAD would have done, trying to protect her boss from political flak, but the tone of the texts was unpleasant.

I’d had many disagreements with SPADS before - they’re par for the course if you’re a specialist journalist monitoring the work of a government department - but they never became nasty and would quickly blow over.

I remember Mark Davies, who was Jack Straw’s SPAD at the Ministry of Justice, shouting down the phone after an item on the Today Programme which he felt was unfair. It was all forgotten about a week later.

On this occasion, however, there was to be no rapprochement with Cunningham. She, and her adviser colleague, Nick Timothy, never spoke to me again. For a while I was placed on what felt like a “blacklist” at the Home Office - denied the kind of access afforded to other reporters. It was so petty.

The pair later became May’s joint chiefs of staff at Downing Street, where they were criticised for their rudeness to civil servants and MPs and dubbed the “terrible twins”. They resigned in 2017 after she lost her overall majority following an ill-judged election campaign.

Those events came to mind after reading accounts by Neil Tweedie in the Daily Mail and Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times of Downing Street back-office life under Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, who left their jobs last week.

The strong impression from each article is that Cummings and Cain became far too big for their own boots - just like Cunningham/Hill and Timothy before them.

And that raises serious questions about the machinery of government at the highest levels.

Surely there’s something fundamentally wrong with a system that allows political appointees - who are neither elected, as MPs are, nor selected under a regulated process, as civil servants are - to wield so much influence and power.

The Prime Minister and Cabinet ministers must be able to choose key members of their teams. But the boundaries in which hand-picked staff operate need to be a lot clearer, with greater, independent, oversight of their behaviour - and accountability when they overstep the mark.

There’s been much talk of a government “re-set” - that would be one way to start.

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