Believe it or not, Steve Hilton is the only real Thatcherite in Cameron’s No 10
Published in The Mail on Sunday (July 31st)
Five years ago, as the hours ticked down to David Cameron’s first party conference speech as leader, there were nerves behind the scenes. In a small back room, his team was still reworking and honing the critical speech, with fresh lines added and chunks taken out. Sandwiches curled on the table while debate raged over key passages.
After reading the speech, I said I thought the overall tone was not quite positive enough and that it needed an optimistic ending. Heads nodded. ‘Absolutely right,’ said Steve Hilton, taking the script off with his party leader for the final draft.
The speech was a success, underlining the new Tory leader’s appeal against a tiring Labour Government. The party faithful loved it, cheering as Mr Cameron concluded his remarks with an oratorical flourish: ‘Let sunshine win the day,’ he urged.
Listening in the audience, I gulped. It was certainly optimistic, but it felt too evangelical, too American for British ears. But I was wrong. The phrase was pure Hilton, a line that cut through the political chaff of the chattering classes to underline Mr Cameron’s optimism. It was mocked, but it worked.
And it became one of the best-known lines the Prime Minister has ever delivered.
This is the side of his work most associated with Mr Hilton: the marketing guru who went from rebranding Nike to rebranding the ‘nasty party’, the man who encouraged Mr Cameron to ‘be the change’ himself by ditching ties, hugging hoodies and riding a husky-drawn sled in the Arctic.
He is seen as some kind of strange, ultra-liberal hippy adviser, forcing crazy Californian-style ideas on his party. Many politicians view him with hostility and much of the Press with ill-informed fascination, deriding him as ‘the shaven-headed Svengali’ and ‘pint-sized Rasputin’ behind the throne.
He even had the ultimate accolade of being satirised as babbling Stewart Pearson in the biting TV satire The Thick Of It.
These views are entirely wrong. Yes, he is the scruffy moderniser who wants to take on big business, tackle climate change and introduce a happiness index. But one year into the Coalition Government, the man who ditched his party’s torch logo for a scribbled tree has emerged in an unlikely new guise as keeper of the Thatcherite flame.
Surrounded by cautious civil servants and pragmatic politicians, some showing signs of panic at the slightest dip in the polls, he has found himself fighting fierce battles to retain a sense of ideologically-driven mission at the heart of the Government – a mission that sits squarely within his party’s heritage.
Mr Hilton does believe maternity rights are preventing small firms hiring women and would like to see statutory leave after childbirth scaled back from one year to six months. He has told friends this was part of a discussion in which he was finding out whether it was ‘an urban myth’ that many European countries ignored legislation from Brussels.
But it was a revealing leak, demonstrating his impatience with political norms, his intolerance of authority and, above all, his intense Euroscepticism, born partly from his background as a child of Hungarian immigrants who fled communism.
Mr Cameron believes that while some of Mr Hilton’s ideas are bonkers, the best ones are brilliant. He is right. Having seen the stifling inertia of our civil service and the timidity of too many politicians focused on winning elections, Britain would be a better place with more people like him inside government.
Mr Hilton played a key role in bringing his party out of the wilderness and into government. Often, he relied on marketing wheezes to decontaminate the brand. But at heart he is an idealist driven by a desire to drastically change Britain. Now he is fighting to ensure the Coalition remains true to Tory traditions on issues such as the family and free market.
Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith told friends that when facing challenges from the Treasury over the cost of his welfare reforms, Mr Hilton was his most reliable ally.
And when Andrew Lansley was under pressure from George Osborne, the Chancellor, and Ed Llewellyn, the Chief of Staff, to abandon controversial health reforms, it was Mr Hilton who insisted on promoting more competition in the NHS.
At the argument’s height, he even held an urgent meeting with Mr Lansley one evening to stop him giving up on his plans. Mr Hilton wants Britain transformed by the end of the Government’s time in office, with public services opened up, red tape slashed and power devolved.
This to him is his cherished Big Society, although he likes to add ‘not Big Government’. He argues that government should lead rather than follow public opinion, which has led to clashes with more tactically minded operators such as Mr Osborne and pollster Andrew Cooper.
Mr Hilton is a complex and highly driven character; he confessed to me once that he times his cycle rides home from Downing Street to compare speeds.
He is stimulating to work with, but can be mercurial: I have seen him explode with exasperation when people differed from his views, brushing aside valid criticisms. While he has been dismayed by the way civil servants stymie reforms, some of them have been shocked by his brusque behaviour.
Against this, he is generous and gregarious. He recently invited the 15-strong research and analytics team from No 10 to his country house in Oxfordshire for the weekend, where he cooked dinner and took them out for a pub lunch.
A music fan, when he saw Thom Yorke DJing at Glastonbury last month, he could not resist giving the surprised Radiohead singer a hug. He was also at the farewell shows for electropop stars LCD Soundsystem earlier this year.
The key question is whether such an impassioned maverick can contain his frustrations with colleagues long enough to remain in government. He would like a frontline political job at some stage, and there have been suggestions he might stand to succeed Boris Johnson as London mayor. It is an intriguing idea.
But it would be a shame if he quits, and not just for satirists. The Government needs to rediscover its sense of purpose after being knocked off course by the health debacle and furore over its links to News International.
It is not enough just to rely on the inadequacy of the Opposition. It needs a new narrative that reaches beyond the cuts in public spending. This is why, however much trouble he causes, however intolerant of criticism, however outlandish his ideas, it is vital Mr Hilton remains in the thick of it at No 10.