David and Samantha Cameron’s stylists on public payroll

“Brand consultant” and personal stylist to the PM’s wife are latest civil service appointments to ca

Hot on the heels of news that David Cameron has employed a personal photographer at public expense, two more dubious appointments to the civil service have emerged.

Both the Tory party's "brand stylist", Anna-Maren Ashford, and Samantha Cameron's personal stylist, Isabel Spearman, are on the public payroll.

Like Andrew Parsons, Cameron's photographer, and Nicky Woodhouse, his cameraman, they are on short-term contracts, meaning that their appointment circumvented the standard competitive process.

Ashford, credited with updating the Conservative's logo from the torch to a tree, is employed as a "brand consultant" for an estimated £50,000 salary. According to the Mirror, her role will include maintaining Cameron's voter-friendly image. The party says she will be instrumental to its "nudge unit", which looks at ways to change people's behaviour.

Spearman is officially employed as a "special adviser" in Downing Street, with four days a week paid for by the state and one day by the Conservative Party. Her roles are not political: they include choosing the Prime Minister's wife's outfits, and helping her run her life and throw official parties.

In fairness, this is hardly the first time a prime minister's wife has had her own aides. Sarah Brown had three assistants. However, it still has the potential to become hugely contentious. Spearman's job is essentially the same as the one performed for Cherie Blair by Carole Caplin, which caused huge controversy.

Indeed, the back-door nature of all four appointments will not sit well with voters. A gushing Daily Mail article in September said that Spearman became friendly with the Camerons "through family connections".

These appointments may not in themselves be remarkable in the context of the last decade of British politics and its focus on image. But that these image consultants and photographers are officially civil servants leaves a sour taste in the mouth, at a time when the public faces savage cuts and 500,000 public-sector job losses.

The image that the government is so desperate to portray – that "we're all in this together" – is tarnished by such cronyism. It gives an impression that Cameron is keen to avoid – that he is building a royal court around himself.

It hasn't yet caused as much of a stir as the PR disaster, early in Cameron's leadership, when he was found cycling to Westminster with a chauffeur driving behind him, carrying his briefcase. However, the Caplin story rumbled on and on. These new arrangements could become thoroughly toxic for the Conservatives.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.