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.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.