As jobs go, it has got to be one of the best going in British politics. To become a government special adviser you don't have to pass exams or even fill in an application form. The pay is good and the opportunity for influencing policy decisions is unrivalled. You get a taste of ministerial power without the responsibility or tiresome inconvenience of having to deal with constituents or worry about re-election. A government special adviser is a study in power without accountability.
However, after just over 26 years of shadowy existence, Westminster's special adviser has been rumbled. Lord Neill of Bladen, chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, served notice last week that their days of free-wheeling unaccountability should be brought to an end and their burgeoning numbers capped.
Lord Neill's committee noted that although they are technically civil servants - and paid for by the taxpayer - special advisers don't have to be impartial or objective and have no code of conduct to govern their activities.
The special adviser is a political anomaly once described as "an imp conjured up in an Oxford philosophy seminar". The qualifications for becoming a member of this Westminster elite are: youth (although older perennial special advisers exist), the ability to push political ideas beyond their logical conclusions, and preferably no experience outside the worlds of academia or Westminster.
Perfect examples of the species are to be found in the Downing Street policy unit. And in this closeted world Geoff Norris is the shining star. The 42-year-old "teeny bopper" moved seamlessly from student activism at Oxford to political research, to divining Labour Party policy, to trashing John Prescott's transport policy without ever going through such undignified processes as competitive examinations or job applications. His knowledge of the outside world, like that of a monk, is purely theoretical.
Currently Mr Norris, who handles trade and industry and employment issues for Tony Blair, shares his "special adviser" title with between 71 and 77 people. The number is imprecise because New Labour has managed to muddy the water by appointing tsars, who are neither quite special advisers nor civil servants, and by putting placemen directly into the Civil Service on short-term contracts. And, uniquely, Tony Blair issued a special "Order in Council" to give his closest political allies - Alastair Campbell, his press secretary, and Jonathan Powell, his chief of staff - the power to order civil servants around.
New Labour has used special advisers as its political stormtroopers and after 18 years in opposition they were eager to storm the corridors of Whitehall. The young team that Labour ministers imported brought with them inbred suspicion of the Civil Service. In the early days of power they ridiculed their Whitehall compatriots as woefully inefficient compared with the clinical party headquarters in Millbank Tower. They also resented the Civil Service machine's ponderously conservative approach to change. The new incumbents were primed to expect attempts to co-opt them into the Civil Service mindset and were effectively ordered to show no deference. In return for their loyalty they have been given unparalleled access to the Whitehall machine.
When faced with the prospect of a doubling in numbers of special advisers, Sir Robin Butler, the former cabinet secretary, is reputed to have been unfazed. He told a former Tory adviser: "What can a few special advisers do against thousands of civil servants? We'll swot them like flies."
Uncharacteristically for Whitehall's top mandarin, the remark ignored the geography of politics in which proximity to power is everything. The title special adviser under New Labour has given the holder - whether in Downing Street, the Department of Health or the Welsh Office - unparalleled access to ministers. …