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Co Armagh Spad brings influential spin doctors of Downing Street to book

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Peter Cardwell with Palmerston the cat outside No 10 Downing Street

Peter Cardwell with Palmerston the cat outside No 10 Downing Street

Peter Cardwell with Palmerston the cat outside No 10 Downing Street

A former special adviser and journalist from Northern Ireland has lifted the lid on the shadowy world of spin doctors.

Peter Cardwell (36) grew up in Richhill, Co Armagh, before working for the BBC and UTV, and then three years as a Government special adviser.

Appointed by Theresa May to advise Secretary of State James Brokenshire, he has also worked with Boris Johnson’s controversial right-hand man Dominic Cummings.

In his new book The Secret Life Of Special Advisers he shares his experiences of negotiating with Martin McGuinness, the RHI scandal and helping the Prime Minister respond to a terrorist attack.

“Spads are a fairly controversial role in Northern Ireland, probably the most informed part of the UK in terms of what they do,” he said from his home in London.

“It is a job that’s cloaked in mystery because no one knows what we do and what we’re for.

“You’re sort of a friend, you’re sort of an adviser.

“You’re spending a lot of time with the person and I was privileged to get to know people like James Brokenshire.”

Comparing it as a mixture of British political satire The Thick Of It and the softer-focused US White House drama The West Wing, he added: “You live a very crazy but privileged life, you get to meet interesting people and do fun things, even though if does take over your life.

“Sometimes it never stopped, but it was brilliant and I loved it and I would highly recommend it to anyone who gets a chance to do it.” Six months after starting as an adviser to Mr Brokenshire in 2016 Stormont came crashing down as Sinn Fein pulled the plug over the DUP’s handling of the RHI scandal.

“What you learn is that it’s a bit of a roller coaster, things take a lot of time and the arguments seemed to be a bit circular,” he said.

“It’s fascinating being in a room with people that you watched on TV for years.

“With Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, it was a weird experience. They were the bogeymen of my youth, essentially, and you’re sitting across the table trying to negotiate with them for the future of Northern Ireland.”

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James Brokenshire

James Brokenshire

Getty Images

James Brokenshire

Despite the difficult task at hand, he praised his former boss Brokenshire.

“He was always bringing friends to the Giant’s Causeway and Titanic Belfast, he loved the place,” he added.

“Sometimes that always didn’t come over, as he had to be in a professional mode in public, but he was a heck of a lot of fun behind the scenes.”

Asked about the controversial role of special advisers during the RHI scandal, he agreed that tougher regulations were needed.

“Clearly politics is all about trust and I think you need to be able to trust your politicians and the people around them,” he said.

“I think a lot of people felt the RHI scandal meant a lot of trust was lost.

“I think tightening up the regulations around Spads was probably not a bad idea, because I worked with Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness’ Spads.

“Advisers advise ministers, and that’s the way it should be.

“I believe (News Letter journalist) Sam McBride’s book Burned and am sure it’s very well-sourced, but that was also not the experience that I had as a special adviser.”

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Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster (PA)

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster (PA)

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster (PA)

Comparing Spad heavyweights such as Cummings and Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor Alastair Campbell, he said: “Obviously they’re at the very top of the tree, so they have a different relationship.

“Alastair Campbell was very heavily involved in the Good Friday Agreement and knows Northern Ireland very well.

“But as a member of the Conservative Party, I would say what I think is forgotten is the huge preparatory work that John Major and his Government did in getting peace negotiations so far down the line.

“I think, as we remember John Hume and his incredible contribution, we should also remember the lesser celebrated of the peace process like John Major, who the IRA tried to murder.”

Despite Cummings causing huge controversy for allegedly breaking lockdown rules and misleading the public over Brexit, Cardwell described him as “incredibly focused and charismatic”.

“I certainly went through the last six months of the May administration, which was really bad and difficult for a lot of people despite the best efforts of a lot of senior Spads around that time,” he said.

“Dominic came in on day one to speak to a dejected bunch of people.

“He said three things were going to happen: ‘We’re going to get Brexit done, we’re going to have an election and win a huge majority’.

“I was sort of standing at the back of the room and thought it was ludicrous; none of that was going to happen. But all three of them did.

“He is a strategic genius. He’s not everyone’s cup of tea but I worked with him very well.”

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Boris Johnson’s senior aide Dominic Cummings (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Boris Johnson’s senior aide Dominic Cummings (Jonathan Brady/PA)

PA

Boris Johnson’s senior aide Dominic Cummings (Jonathan Brady/PA)

In his book Cardwell recalls a Cabinet meeting in the wake of Streatham terror attack in February.

“I was sitting opposite Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson, and let’s just say others who you might expect to be in the room after a terror attack,” he said.

“So he showed very strong and decisive leadership.

“Boris Johnson would say what he wants to happen and Dominic Cummings makes it happen.

“This idea that he’s running the Government — he is, but he’s carrying out the instructions of Boris Johnson.

“Some of what’s written about him is true as well.

“He is definitely a fascinating character.”

The Secret Life Of Special Advisers will be published on October 13 and is now available to pre-order on Amazon.

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Peter Cardwell's book The Secret Life Of Special Advisers

Peter Cardwell's book The Secret Life Of Special Advisers

Peter Cardwell's book The Secret Life Of Special Advisers

Belfast Telegraph