Hilton, Osborne and the fight for Downing Street influence

Are we seeing the rise of the realists?

During Gordon Brown's brief summer honeymoon of 2007 David Cameron headed off to Africa for one of his many rebranding/detoxifying exercises. The timing was terrible. Floods had hit parts of the UK including his own constituency of Witney. He should not have gone, or at least cut short the trip, and he knew it, turning to his adviser Steve Hilton (according to Andrew Rawnsley's account in "The End of the Party") to declare: "I should have stayed at fucking home."

Hilton, now director of strategy to PM Cameron, is the man behind many of those set pieces, the very acts of public relations -- hugging hoodies and huskies -- that Ed Miliband now is being urged to copy as his personal ratings suffer. Ironic, therefore that Hilton's own position is being widely discussed this weekend.

The current talk appears to be prompted by a recent piece in the Spectator in which James Forsyth wrote:

Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister's guru and Downing Street's reformer-in-chief, is increasingly frustrated by this backsliding [on public sector reform]. One Whitehall ally worries that he could soon walk away in frustration if all these policies carry on being delayed and diluted.

Writing in today's Mail on Sunday, Forsyth says:

Hilton might be only an 'adviser', but in the Coalition's first year in office he has been a far more powerful figure than most Cabinet Ministers. The opinions of few others matter more to the Prime Minister than those of his long-time friend and ally.

Hilton's frustration apparently stems from the achingly-slow pace of the civil service machine. There exists particular animosity with Ed Llewellyn, Cameron's chief of staff who is said to "disapprove of Hilton's combative approach to officialdom", according to Forsyth's sources.

ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie comes at the story from a slightly different angle. In a piece in today's Sunday Telegraph -- "How the realists eclipsed the radicals inside Downing Street" -- Montgomerie writes:

The big U-turns on health and prison sentencing reflect the rise of the realists, led by George Osborne, and the partial eclipse of the radicals, led by Steve Hilton, David Cameron's political guru.

John Rentoul chips, writing in the Independent on Sunday:

Hilton is the advocate of always going further and faster, which was also the mantra of the Blairites in the later New Labour years. His attitude to public opinion is that it is there to be led. This is not entirely reckless, although on the NHS it was hard to see how public opinion could have been turned round (at least, not without a new health secretary).

A picture is emerging of George Osborne exerting more and more influence on decision making. It's a picture that the Chancellor will find agreeable and one probably that he is more than happy to see disseminated. Here's the uber-strategist taking the pragmatic course when necessary.

All of which suggest trouble ahead when "Osborne the realist" meets "Chancellor Osborne the ideologue" if economic growth fails to materialise and the private sector fails to deliver jobs as he's promised it will.

To retreat from Andrew Lansley's NHS plans is one thing. To retreat from his own economic Plan A, something else altogether.

 

 

 

 

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

Getty
Show Hide image

The Manchester attack will define this election: Broadcasters have a careful line to tread

It's right that the government should be given a chance to respond, but they must not be allowed to use it to campaign.

Every election campaign has its story, its place in the political history of this country. 2017 will forever be known for Manchester and the horror of the attack on Britain's young; and fighting terrorism will be a theme, overt or underlying, of what we see and hear between now and polling day.

The broadcasters have covered the events comprehensively yet sensitively. But they are aware that we're in an election campaign too; and when other news drives aside the carefully-balanced campaign formats, ministerial appearances give them a dilemma.

The fact is that what the Prime Minister and Home Secretary are doing in response to Manchester is newsworthy. It was Theresa May's duty to implement the recommendations of her security advisers on the elevation of the terror alert, and it would have been unthinkable for the news channels not to broadcast her various statements.

But it is also true that, if the bomb hadn't been detonated, Tuesday would have been a day in which the PM would have been under relentless damaging scrutiny for her u-turn on social care. All the opposition parties would have been in full cry across the airwaves. Yet in the tragic circumstances we found ourselves, nobody could argue that Downing Street appearances on the terror attack should prompt equal airtime for everyone from Labour to Plaid Cymru.

There are precedents for ministers needing to step out of their party roles during a campaign, and not be counted against the stopwatch balance of coverage. Irish terrorism was a factor in previous elections and the PM or Northern Ireland secretary were able to speak on behalf of the UK government. It applied to the foot and mouth epidemic that was occupying ministers' time in 2001. Prime ministers have gone to foreign meetings before, too. Mrs Thatcher went to an economic summit in photogenic Venice with her soulmate Ronald Reagan three days before the 1987 election, to the irritation of Neil Kinnock.

There are plenty of critics who will be vigilant about any quest for party advantage in the way that Theresa May and Amber Rudd now make their TV and radio appearances; and it’s inevitable that a party arguing that it offers strength and stability will not object to being judged against these criteria in extreme and distressing times.

So it's necessary for both broadcasters and politicians to be careful, and there are some fine judgements to be made. For instance, it was completely justifiable to interview Amber Rudd about the latest information from Manchester and her annoyance with American intelligence leaks. I was less comfortable with her being asked in the same interview about the Prevent strategy, and with her response that actions would follow "after June", which edges into party territory and would be a legitimate area to seek an opposition response.

When the campaigning resumes, these challenges become even greater. Deciding when the Prime Minister is speaking for the government and nation, or when she is leader of the Conservative Party, will never be black and white. But I would expect to see the broadcast bulletins trying to draw clearer lines about what is a political report and what is the latest from Manchester or from G7. They must also resist any efforts to time ministerial pronouncements with what's convenient for the party strategists' campaign grid.

There might also usefully be more effort to report straight what the parties are saying in the final days, with less spin and tactical analysis from the correspondents. The narrative of this election has been changed by tragedy, and the best response is to let the politicians and the public engage as directly as possible in deciding what direction the nation should now take.

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

0800 7318496