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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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.