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.