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.