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Cameron's guru goes west

Has Tory decontamination gone for good too?

Steve Hilton
On his bike: Steve Hilton (photo: Getty Images)

The more consequential of the two stories contained in the latest extracts from Francis Elliott and James Hanning's book about David Cameron, which I blogged about yesterday, concerned the departure from Number 10 of the Prime Minister's director of strategy, Steve Hilton. "As the Government approached its halfway mark," Elliott and Hanning wrote, "Hilton remained the player in the team 'who believes in things', as one Tory puts it, and one who wanted to make bold, radical changes ... Hilton’s friends began openly wondering whether Cameron shared his passion."

Hilton's decision to take a "sabbatical" (that is likely to turn out to be a permanent furlough) is preoccupying several commentators today. John Rentoul in the Independent on Sunday thinks it marks the end of the first phase of the Cameron government. Rentoul repeats Elliott and Hanning's suggestion that, for a while now, it's been the "cold calculations" of George Osborne that have had the PM's ear, rather than Hilton's "idealistic enthusiasms" about shrinking the state. (Hilton appears to have dealt with the apparent prime ministerial rebuff by raging at civil servants; the mandarinate certainly wasn't begging him to stay.) But, Rentoul adds, that shift in Cameron's affections has wider ramifications:

It is a buddy-movie break-up to touch the hardest of hearts. Yet it also makes a difference to the character of the Government, because it coincides with a mid-term shift in how Cameron is seen by the voters. The Prime Minister used to be more popular than the Conservative Party. He seemed to play the part of unifying national leader well. But our opinion poll today is the first from ComRes that puts his personal rating below Ed Miliband's.

That Cameron is now more unpopular than the Labour leader suggests that Hilton's "decontamination" strategy has failed (the attempt since 2005 to rehabilitate the Tories and to convince voters that they're no longer the "nasty party" being more or less entirely a function of the personality of the Prime Minister). Rentoul is surely right, therefore, to suggest that "Hiltonism – defined as persuading the voters that the Tories are not the party which looks after its own – is the key to the next election." 

Over at Conservative Home, Paul Goodman offers a subtly different, but no less interesting, analysis of the Hilton era. The government's problem, Goodman suggests, is that it hasn't been able to decide who incarnates its authentic self - Hilton or Osborne:

To date, the Conservative part of this Government has been half-Osborne, that most worldly politician of all (reason, calculation, limited aims and a dash of cynicism) and half-Hilton (heart, impulse, transformative ambition and idealism). The Government's mid-term plight has been shaped largely by the lack of a majority and a shortage of money. But trying to be all things to all men has wreaked collateral damage.

Rentoul suggests that Hilton himself must bear some of the blame for this predicament:

The Budget was a historic error, from which all of Cameron's problems flow. It was a betrayal of Hiltonism. In opposition, Hilton would never have contemplated a tax cut for the rich that would so offend the AB liberal demographic group. Yet Hilton himself was complicit in the turn away from his own policy of Tory decontamination. Once in government and charged with progress-chasing, he allowed his frustrations with Europe and the Liberal Democrats to override the need to appeal to centrist voters. By railing against Europe and offending the Lib Dems by trying to curtail maternity rights and to make it easier to sack workers, he seemed to be reverting to a William Hague 2001 strategy.

Of course, some have suspected all along that "Tory decontamination" was only ever skin deep. Certainly, it hasn't turned out to be the definitive solution to the Conservative Party's electoral woes that Hilton and the Cameroons thought it would be.