Inside a political scandal
They’re the brains behind our most powerful politicians, but Westminster’s high-flying female advisers spend their days in a bubble of misogyny and elitism. Is their rarefied world all it’s cracked up to be? Tara Jane O’Reilly investigates
A row of press photographers stand hungrily at the back of a central London conference room.
The lights are dimmed everywhere aside from the top table, where the country’s most powerful politicians are bathed in a spotlight. Across the floor sits a sea of banking CEOs and prominent businesspeople in sharp tuxedos and silk ballgowns. The man they’re here to see is Chancellor Philip Hammond, arguably the UK’s second most powerful politician after the Prime Minister at the time. He’s also 28-year-old Sonia Khan’s boss. It’s her job to make sure his speech – the one she’s spent weeks perfecting – goes off without a hitch.
Then, without warning, a door creaks open. Khan flinches – doors don’t just open when the people inside are the country’s most protected and powerful. Men and women in equally resplendent eveningwear storm in and race to the front, throwing mysterious cream packages under the tables. The room erupts into panic. Khan runs towards the door to stem the flow of people entering,
but with disruptors and invited guests wearing similar outfits, no one can distinguish between them, and Khan is manhandled towards the exit. After successfully protesting her innocence, she flies into action, corralling staff into helping her force the door closed, making sure no one – least of all her boss – is hurt, directing security teams, and checking the packages under the tables. The invaders turned out to be Greenpeace protestors and the packages merely scrolls of paper, but Khan didn’t know that then. “It’s my job to think, ‘What’s the worst-case scenario?’” she reflects.
As a high-flying adviser, putting out political fires while new ones sparked in the background was a daily occurrence. From August 2018 until August 2019 (when Khan was unceremoniously fired, more of which later), she served as a special adviser, or “spad” – first to Hammond and later to his successor, Sajid Javid. All MPs have staff who assist them, but spads are in an elite league, advising those at the very top. They’re hired to serve cabinet ministers and are the magic behind the scenes, making sure their employers are well-briefed, well-caffeinated, and don’t become a meme. In effect, they are the gatekeepers to the country’s most powerful people, and their influence is mighty. They have salaries to match, with some earning over £140,000. And in the case of Boris Johnson’s former special adviser, Dominic Cummings, they can make headlines themselves. Of the 108 spads in government,* well under half are women.
In the past year, we’ve seen more than ever how decisions made by politicians directly impact our lives – from the COVID crisis to Brexit – but they don’t make them alone. Who are these women secretly sitting alongside those running the country, and behind the gloss and power, is it all it’s cracked up to be?
Never off-duty Khan became a special adviser after five years in the civil service, and worked on government policies including Brexit funding and period poverty. But the job can also entail being a PA, interior decorator, travel agent, family mediator, press officer, and, yes, security guard. For every potentially life-threatening incident, there’s a lighter one: Khan recalls bribing Hammond’s two dogs into position for his Christmas-card photo. “I went from working on tax policy to trying to arrange tinsel around a dog’s collar in just a few minutes,” she says.
Being a spad is allconsuming: Khan was permanently glued to her phone and slept with a notepad by her pillow in case she was called by a journalist at 2am (she was exiled to the sofa of the one-bedroom flat she shared with her partner more than once). She often worked from 5am until midnight, with little time for a personal life. Khan’s family mocked her for always being on two phones, even at Christmas.“I’d position myself at the back of weddings and christenings so I could duck out and take my boss’s calls. You never switch off.” The job, though, gives you influence over the laws and policies that affect all of us. As a spad working for the Chancellor, the annual Budget was Khan’s most critical work period, a time of vending-machine runs and intense focus. But these times were also the most rewarding. Ahead of the 2019 Budget announcement, Khan had spent weeks fighting to have free sanitary products in schools included in that year’s plans, a task that entailed “explaining how periods work to rooms of greying, middle-aged men”. The measure was still being debated the night before, so Khan ransacked her contacts book, rallying people who might support it. She succeeded. “To be one of a tiny team of people who made that happen felt amazing,” she recalls.
The struggle is real I know the pressures that come with the job. Though not a special adviser myself, I was Keir Starmer’s candidate aide during his campaign to be Labour leader. In that time, I found myself in a state of panic multiple times a day. Holding down a high-stakes role and being one of the only women doing it means being a female spad can have a knock-on effect on your mental health. Many eventually burn out. What makes it especially difficult for women in Westminster is that politics can feel like it’s wired against them. The culture is oriented around starched suits in stuffy bars, and you often have to deal with sexual harassment and abuse. I’ve had to fend off handsy men, and have consoled so many friends
“BEING A FEMALE SPAD CAN HAVE A KNOCK-ON EFFECT ON YOUR MENTAL HEALTH”
after they were screamed at by their boss or touched inappropriately that I’ve lost count. We rely on whisper networks to keep one another safe. Carys Afoko, 35, is a former political adviser for the Labour party, who began working as a volunteer for Chuka Umunna in 2009 and eventually became a “pad” (the equivalent of a special adviser, but for the opposition party) to Lisa Nandy MP a few years ago. Before she even began working in Westminster, at 23, an older MP with a reputation for lechery made a pass at her.
Afoko has worked outside politics for most of her career, and says Westminster is far behind most modern workplaces.“I’m a Black woman, so I’ve experienced sexism and racism nearly everywhere I’ve worked, but in politics it’s especially bad. It’s such a small world that if you spoke out, you’d kill your career. It’s rarely in your interests to complain because you’d be seen as a troublemaker.”
Afoko’s experience of feeling like an outsider was enhanced by the fact she grew up in social housing as part of a singleparent family.“If you’re from any background that isn’t traditionally part of the ruling elite, you feel a constant sense that you don’t belong,” she says. “If you’re the only young woman in a meeting, it’s assumed you’re there to make tea and take notes.” Parliament itself is intimidating, too. “I never stopped feeling overwhelmed,” she says. Her brother once visited for lunch wearing jogging bottoms.“I had no idea if that was OK, but in the end I didn’t care,” she says, her voice tinged with defiance. When I reached out to the House of Commons, they told me that “the Members’ Services Team provides an HR advice service for Members and their HR proxies that advises and supports Members on all aspects of employment”. They also added that they offer engagement and pastoral support to all MPs’ staff, and that they make early contact with new starters in MPs’ offices, with an invitation to a monthly new-joiner welcome and networking event.
Khan, who went to a Birmingham comprehensive and whose father is a taxi driver, says that when you’re dealing with policies that affect the whole population, having people with different perspectives is critical. Once, a group of ministers were discussing a report that indicated many people don’t have five pounds to spare. “They found it preposterous: ‘How can you not have savings? Who doesn’t have shares or investments?’ I had to remind them that many people do live hand to mouth.” These instances showed Khan how rare, and therefore valuable, her voice and influence were. She developed her mantra,“Never leave a meeting without speaking” – even if that meant interrupting other people’s conversations.“I felt responsible: if I didn’t put across the perspective of someone who went to a ‘normal’ school, it would never be heard.”
A risky business As the Queen’s plane lifted off the runway, Lauren McEvatt sat across the aisle from then Prime
Minister David Cameron. A wing commander served her tea in a china cup and offered a plate of assorted biscuits. McEvatt picked up a Jammie Dodger. She had made it.
Moments of fleeting glamour happen as a spad. But once you’ve got the job, there’s no guarantee you’ll be around for long. Your employment is entirely dependent on, well, your boss’s: if they lose an election or the Prime Minister drops them from the cabinet, you lose your job. McEvatt, a former special adviser to the Conservative MP and then Welsh Secretary David Jones, knows this all too well. Because Jones was responsible for ensuring Welsh interests were taken into account, McEvatt had something to do with every brief in government, but after her boss was ousted in a reshuffle, she lost her job. “Post-spad life is tough, especially if you don’t leave voluntarily,” she says. As she had worked with every department, she was slapped with a two-year ban on being employed by the government after leaving, and was turned down for a job at a big tech firm because she wouldn’t be allowed to talk to
“IT’S SUCH A SMALL WORLD THAT IF YOU SPOKE OUT, YOU’D KILL YOUR CAREER”
politicians. Eventually she found a job working in international politics.
In the cut-throat world spads operate in, falls can be brutal – and public. On 29th August 2019, Khan’s day began as any normal day in her not-sonormal job would, but just hours later she was escorted from Parliament by a police officer. After a disagreement with Dominic Cummings, she was fired. It made headline news.“I had no inkling it was coming,” Khan reflects.“I’d worked with the press for so long – now I was the news.” The months that followed were rocky. She couldn’t leave her house because the press knew where she lived. Her younger sisters were forced to hide when they were pursued through a supermarket, and her partner, who’d previously had three brain tumours, began to get headaches.“I’d think,‘Is this stressing him out or is the brain tumour back?’” she reflects. Khan claimed unfair dismissal, and in November 2020 she was reportedly paid a hefty settlement. She now works in public affairs and has time to live her life – her partner is grateful her phone no longer rings at 3am.
While being a female spad may be gruelling and the work/life balance isn’t for everyone, a career at the heart of government is dizzyingly exciting.“It isn’t something many people have on their LinkedIn profile,” Khan says. “Leaving the role can be tricky – nothing compares to it.”
But it’s not just a thrilling job for those doing it: we need women like Afoko, Khan and McEvatt in politics because the fewer women there are working in government, the fewer voices there are representing us. So what can be done to make life easier for every woman in Westminster? There are no silver bullets, but with each general election, the number of women in parliament increases (220 out of 650 MPs,† up from 143 after the 2010 election). “Women gain confidence from seeing others like them – especially if those women have worked in other offices and know what’s normal,” adds Afoko.
I often share “argh” WhatsApp messages with Marie Le Conte, a writer and author of Haven’t You Heard?: Gossip, Politics And Power, and she also believes the answer is getting more women and non-binary people into politics’ upper echelons. “If women remain a minority in political workplaces, they will keep getting tokenised and treated as relevant solely on women’s issues.” She also says that assuming we only need more female political advisers for the sake of gender parity misses the point.“How can we make effective policies if the people coming up with them aren’t representative of their country?” she asks. From my experience of the Houses of Parliament, it’s mainly men who are considered part of the “inner circle”. But if things stay that way, we all lose out. As Khan says, “Representation is at the heart of making Westminster – and the country – a better place for women. I tried to open politicians’ minds to life working a minimum-wage job and advocated for minorities. Would those people have had a voice otherwise?”