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. 

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era