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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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