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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.