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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the gathering was remarkably fractious (PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatened to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, emphasised that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question. She said she would listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and would soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible that with improving technology large submarines could easily be tracked and detected and attacked by drones. She said so it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

But former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained that she had failed to understand how the UK's nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it was "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year, the battle is on to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.