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Profile: Jonathan Caine - Theresa Villiers' right hand man

He has served five secretaries of state as special adviser - a remarkable achievement - yet has no electoral ambitions himself. Is it any wonder Jonathan Caine is described as ‘Theresa Villiers’ right hand’, asks Alex Kane

David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg all have one particular thing in common: they were all special advisers (or 'Spads') before they were elected. Spads, generally speaking, have had a bad reputation – particularly since their proliferation under Tony Blair after 1997 – with former Cabinet minister Clare Short describing them as "people who live in the dark".

In programmes like Yes Minister, The Thick of It and The West Wing, they are portrayed as vacuous, treacherous, malicious and, when necessary, expendable at a moment's notice.

They are governed by their own code of conduct: "The employment of special advisers adds a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to ministers while reinforcing the political impartiality of the permanent civil service by distinguishing the source of political advice and support.

"Special advisers are employed to help ministers on matters where the work of government and the work of the government party overlap and where it would be inappropriate for permanent civil servants to become involved.

"They are appointed to serve the government as a whole and not just their appointing minister.

"They are an additional resource for the minister, providing assistance from a standpoint that is more politically committed and politically aware than would be available to a minister from the permanent civil service."

They review papers going to their minister, drawing attention to any aspect which they think has party political implications; prepare speculative policy papers reflecting the wider viewpoint of the minister's party; liaise with the party; brief MPs; represent the views of their minister to the media when they have been authorised to do so; provide expert advice in particular fields; attend party functions and maintain contact with members; and take part in policy reviews organised by the party, or officially in conjunction with it, for the purpose of ensuring that those undertaking the review are fully aware of the Government's views and their minister's thinking and policy.

In other words, they serve as the minister's eyes and ears, protecting them, briefing them and gently steering them when required.

Jonathan Caine is special adviser to Secretary of State Theresa Villiers. Caine was described by former Secretary of State Owen Paterson (for whom he also worked) as "one of the foremost experts on Northern Ireland".

A senior member of the SDLP, who first met Caine almost 20 years ago, half agrees with Paterson's assessment: "Jonathan is very good when it comes to understanding unionism, but he has no real understanding of what makes nationalism/republicanism tick and no sympathy, either.

He is comfortable with the likes of David Trimble, but never seems at ease with the likes of us."

He also described Caine as "another one of the Tory toffs."

Yet Jonathan Caine was born in Leeds in 1966, in a working-class district called Harehills, where most houses, including his own, still had outside toilets.

His father, now retired, owned his own small glazing business for 35 years, while his mother, a former hairdresser, also joined the family business.

He has one brother, who still works in the glass industry. Caine worked in his father's glass factory during the summer and helped with site deliveries when he passed his driving test in 1983.

He attended Halton Primary School and Middle School and then Temple Moor High School. He read history at the University of Leicester (the first member of his family to go to university).

His special subject was the Conservative Party 1902-40, during which he studied in depth the 1912-14 Home Rule crisis and the 1921 Treaty. It was at this point that his unionist sympathies developed.

In an article a few years ago for the Conservative home website, he described himself as "a convinced unionist, who still believes, post-devolution, that unionism is part of the Conservative Party's DNA."

Some members of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland suggest that "when Jonathan talks of unionism, he actually means the Ulster Unionist Party, rather than the broader definition of the term. He is no friend of the local Conservative associations."

At the time of the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists-New Force (UCUNF) project in 2009/10, a former member of the Conservatives insisted that, "Jonathan Caine was more than happy to collude with the UUP to remove the Conservative part of the alliance, and Paterson and others let him do this."

This view tends to be confirmed by senior members of the UUP at the time, who say that, "while he served as directed during the UCUNF experiment, he was probably far more disposed towards a pact between Cunningham House [UUP HQ at the time] and Conservative Central Office, leaving the local Tories out of the deal altogether."

Friends say that his interest in politics was sparked by his upbringing in that working-class area of Leeds during the 1970s; an era of inflation, power cuts, strikes and a general impression of British decline.

Like many from a small business-owning working class background of that period, he was attracted to the beliefs of Margaret Thatcher and repelled by what the socialism of old Labour was doing to the country.

Although there was no history of political activism in his family, he joined the Conservative Party at university and went straight from there to the Conservative Research Department in 1987 (David Cameron joined the following year and for a while they had adjoining offices).

He was assigned to the Northern Ireland desk in 1988 and has maintained the link ever since – making him one of the key Conservative players here for a quarter of a century.

He was a special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office between 1991-95 and again from 2010 and has worked for Tom King, Peter Brooke, Patrick Mayhew, Owen Paterson and Theresa Villiers.

Most special advisers tend to move (or get sacked, to put it bluntly) when their minister moves, yet Caine is still in situ – a pretty remarkable achievement and an acknowledgement of how highly valued he is by his party.

It was a text from David Cameron – by then leader of the party – in 2009 which lured him back to Northern Ireland (he had left the Conservative Research Department in 2007 after a stint in William Hague's private office as a speechwriter and was working for Bell Pottinger Public Affairs) as Owen Paterson's chief-of-staff and then special adviser after the 2010 election.

He is unmarried and spends two working days a week here. Friends say he loves the place. He can often be seen close to the Secretary of State and would be the key input into all of her speeches and decisions.

He is viewed as a very safe pair of hands and is liked and respected by senior figures within the NIO and the wider civil service. Friends say that he has no interest in elective office and when this "tour of Northern Ireland duty ends" with the 2015 general election, he may be tempted to step away from it.

Away from politics, he is a supporter of the Leeds Rhinos rugby league team and still travels from London to Leeds for their home games: he used to attend with his father until a recent illness made that more difficult.

He supports the Yorkshire cricket team, listens to rock music – he has a particular fondness for Led Zeppelin – and enjoys a regular pint of beer, never lager.

Jonathan Caine is typical of what special advisers used to be and should be: people who know what they are supposed to do and do it with expertise and discretion.

That may be something to do with the fact that he doesn't want to be an MP, so feels no need to put self-serving advice before impartial judgment.

One can't help thinking that he would have made a very interesting Secretary of State in his own right. One thing is certain, though.

He has had a much greater influence on Northern Ireland politics than most people know – or will ever know.

A life so far...

  • Born in Leeds in 1966 in a “very working-class estate”
  • His father was a glazier and his mother a former hairdresser
  • He read history at Leicester University — the first member of his family to go
  • He joined the Conservatives at university
  • He was appointed to the Northern Ireland desk at Conservative HQ in 1988 and has served five secretaries of state
  • He supports Leeds Rhinos, Yorkshire County Cricket and likes Led Zeppelin

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