Why Dave will miss this hawk in hippy’s clothing

Published in the Daily Mail (March 3rd, 2012)

Last week in Downing Street there was a seminar on the future of cities. First a Danish architect spoke of his plan to bury a power station in an artificial ski slope with a chimney emitting smoke rings – every tenth ring would indicate that a ton of carbon had entered the atmosphere. Then a dreadlocked American displayed futuristic designs for backpack jets and cars made of soft fabrics, and another speaker showed off smartphone apps for residents to report potholes.

Sitting quietly at the back of the room, which was filled with luminaries such as the world- renowned architect Lord Rogers and former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine, was David Cameron’s director of strategy Steve Hilton, wearing a lurid lilac polo shirt amid all the suits.

Afterwards, he confessed that he had not intended to stay for the entire morning’s proceedings, but had found the discussions so absorbing that he had hung on. ‘It was just so enjoyable and interesting,’ he said. ‘It reminded me how much I enjoyed these sort of events.’

This is the conventional image of Hilton: casual clothing, hippy ideas and, famously, a lack of footwear. It is an image that sits alongside the way he finds the free-thinking world of American academia so exhilarating – and it is why many of his critics feel he belongs more in the lecture halls of a Californian university than padding around the corridors of Downing Street in his socks.

But those critics are wrong. And his move to Stanford – ostensibly for a year, although few friends anticipate his return to the government front line despite his protestations to the contrary – is a significant blow both for the Prime Minister and the Coalition

It is a loss for David Cameron because they have such a close bond of friendship. Hilton was godfather to the Prime Minister’s son Ivan and, as one insider said last night, he is the one man who can ring him up late on a Sunday night and get controversial measures agreed in minutes.

Mr Cameron knows that some of Hilton’s brainwaves are bonkers and some of his ideas are beyond the political pale – witness his startling proposals to scale back maternity rights and ignore European regulations on temporary workers.

But the Prime Minister also knows that the best are brilliant and that his friend’s fearless zeal for fresh ideas, and his restless determination to transform Britain during their time in office, provided much-needed grit in his core team.

He is fun, if always challenging to work with, as I know from my time in Mr Cameron’s office. Without him, there is a danger of complacency. This is why the bigger blow is to the Coalition Government, especially given Cameron’s comfort in the job.

Hilton might be a scruffy moderniser who wants to challenge big business, introduce a happiness index and adopt a green agenda. But he is also an iconoclast and an idealist, prepared to confront the cosy consensus of the civil service and fight those politicians who prize pragmatism over principles.

‘This is a terrible loss for us,’ said one Conservative colleague. ‘He is the only one in that central team who is genuinely anti-establishment and radical, prepared always to question what we are doing. It is almost like a punk belief in smashing the system.’

Curiously, the man once seen as a liberal who forced his reluctant party to adopt crazy Californian-style ideas has emerged as the most formidable defender of radical conservatism on issues such as competition in the health service, tearing up red tape and taking on the Eurocrats.

As one Downing Street insider told me last year: ‘He is the flag-bearer no one recognises, simply because he is wearing a T-shirt.’ This is why he has found it increasingly difficult working with the Liberal Democrats, despairing of their caution on public service reform and constant playing of political games – and he is a man who does not hide his feelings well. There is no doubt his Coalition ‘colleagues’ will be among those celebrating his departure.

Hilton puts much of his radicalism down to his background as a child of Hungarian immigrants who fled communism; indeed, he still speaks  to his mother in her native language and has dreams of opening a Hungarian restaurant.

A bright student, he won a scholarship to a private school before going to Oxford University and then joining the Conservative research department, where he met both David Cameron and his future wife Rachel Whetstone.

It is notable that the other genuine reformer to have emerged in a government dominated by people from prosperous backgrounds is his close friend Michael Gove, who was adopted at a young age and raised by an Aberdonian fish merchant. Their two families holiday together; last autumn they caught up with The Killing, the Danish crime series, while in Provence.

Gove gave a good insight into Hilton in an interview this month when he said that his friend – whom he cited as a political hero – berated him for flying on the wrong airline to the U.S. ‘Don’t fly British Airways; they are the fat cats,’ he urged. ‘Fly Branson; he is the upstart. We are on the side of the upstarts.’

Although Hilton has never hidden his frustration with the slow pace of government, he had been happier in recent months, focusing on the implementation of early reforms now coming to fruition while promoting the spread of urban mayors, reform of the civil service and sweeping deregulation to boost growth.

But he is also a firm believer in marriage and families. One key reason for his departure is so that he can spend time bonding with his second son, who is nearly a year old, having spent several months in California when his older son was the same age. His wife is a senior executive at Google, and Hilton returned on Thursday from house-hunting in California.

His departure makes Westminster a more boring place. He says he will return to Britain after a year’s sabbatical, and has indicated he would like a front-line political job at some stage. There have even been suggestions he might stand for Mayor of London, although he is also interested in returning to the business world. He previously ran a consultancy firm.

When he took a similar sabbatical during his party’s time in opposition, the Tories’ substantial lead in the polls slipped as they moved from his brand of radical modernisation to a more conventional emphasis on cuts and crime.

‘The energy just went out of everything,’ said one friend. ‘Let’s hope this doesn’t happen again.’

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