Cameron's guru goes west

Has Tory decontamination gone for good too?

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.

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

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Article 50: Theresa May tries to charm the EU but danger lies ahead

As the Prime Minister adopts a more conciliatory stance, she risks becoming caught between party and country. 

She may have been a "reluctant" one but a Remainer Theresa May was. The Prime Minister's first mission was to reassure her viscerally anti-EU party that Brexit meant Brexit. Today, by invoking Article 50, she has proved true to her word.

In this new arena, it is not Britain that has "taken back control" but the EU. When Brussels drew up the divorce proceedings it did so with the intention of maximising its influence. The withdrawal deal that Britain reaches must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population. The two-year deadline for leaving can only be extended by unanimous agreement. Even the much-maligned European Parliament has a vote.

While keeping her famously regicidal party on side, May must also charm her 27 EU counterparts. In her Commons statement on Article 50, she unmistakably sought to do so. The PM spoke repeatedly of a new "deep and special partnership" between Britain and the EU, consciously eschewing the language of divorce. In contrast to Donald Trump, who pines for the EU's collapse, May declared that "perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe" (prompting guffaws and jeers from Tim Farron's party and the opposition benches). Indeed, at times, her statement echoed her pro-Remain campaign speech. 

Having previously argued that "no deal is better than a bad deal", the Prime Minister entirely ignored the possibility of failure (though in her letter to the EU she warned that security cooperation "would be weakened" without an agreement). And, as she has done too rarely, May acknowledged "the 48 per cent" who voted Remain. "I know that this is a day of celebration for some and disappointment for others," she said. "The referendum last June was divisive at times. Not everyone shared the same point of view, or voted in the same way. The arguments on both side were passionate." 

Having repeatedly intoned that "we're going to make a success" of Brexit, May showed flashes of scepticism about the path ahead. She warned of negative "consequences" for the UK: "We know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We know that UK companies that trade with the EU will have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part, just as we do in other overseas markets. We accept that." May also acknowledged that any deal would have to be followed by a "phased process of implementation" (otherwise known as transitional agreement) to prevent the UK falling over what the PM once called the "cliff-edge". 

In Brussels, such realism will be welcomed. Many diplomats have been stunned by the Brexiteers' Panglossian pronouncements, by their casual insults (think Boris Johnson's reckless war references). As the UK seeks to limit the negative "consequences" of a hard Brexit, it will need to foster far greater goodwill. Today, May embarked on that mission. But as the negotiations unfold, with the EU determined for the UK to settle a hefty divorce bill (circa £50bn) at the outset, the Prime Minister will find herself torn between party and country. Having delighted the Brexit-ultras to date, will she now risk alienating the Mail et al? The National Insurance debacle, which saw the government blink in the face of a small rebellion, was regarded by Remainers as an ominous precedent. May turned on the charm today but it will take far longer to erase the animosity and suspicion of the last nine months. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.