Hilton won't be missed by many in government, but Hiltonism will be

Cameron's chief strategist's hatred of bureaucracy could be impractical; his sense that government s

What does the departure of Steve Hilton, David Cameron's Director of Strategy, mean for Downing Street? In terms of the day-to-day running of government, the answer is not much. There is no doubting Hilton's closeness to the Prime Minister, but his direct influence on the machinery of government was not vast and has been waning for some time.

One senior government official recently told me that Hilton's presence could be felt in many ways but "on the really big, billion-pound decisions, he's not in the room."

Hilton's frustration with the practical reality of governing was famous in Whitehall. He is a fanatical enemy of bureaucracy. In a meeting he once challenged everyone present to explain why an entire government department couldn't be replaced by "seven people and a website". His attachment to digital solutions is also renowned. One mandarin satirises the Hilton response to any given policy challenge as "build me a website by Monday." The same source reveals that officials came to realise that these commands could be ignored. Hilton has a reputation for throwing tantrums and has alienated a lot of people but his ferocious attention to any particular topic is short-lived. Hide, and he'll move on. I know of at least one top cabinet office official who has considered thwarting Hilton to be a central aspect of her job description.

That said, Hilton's influence as a dynamic thinker, challenging the Number 10 operation to raise its eyes from the daily grind and contemplate the far policy horizon, has been vital. Hilton has been motivated by the impulse to leave an irreversible legacy of reform - changing the way public services are run, changing in fact the whole British conception of what the state is and what it does. The countervailing impulse has been tactical caution - driven substantially by Andrew Cooper, the No. 10 pollster and George Osborne. There is some concern - justified, I would say - that the kind of revolutionary attitude to statecraft advocated by Hilton alienates voters, especially those who were wary of the Tories in 2010. Hilton's wild-eyed zeal, often involving quite radical Thatcherite ideas, is problematic with the people Tory focus groups identify as the "considerers" - those who flirted with the idea of backing Cameron but were held back by residual suspicion that the Conservatives don't really represent ordinary people and can't be trusted, for example, to look after the NHS. (Hilton was one of those who has argued against dropping Andrew Lansley's reforms for fear that doing so would signal the death of the government's reformist energy. That was plainly the wrong call.)

The counter-argument - the defence of Hiltonism - is that without radical ideas, the government's only conspicuous purpose is deficit reduction which is (a) hurting people and (b) not working out as planned. That is making it very hard to imagine what a Conservative manifesto offer for Britain will be at the next election that might be more inspiring than a message of "more austerity, but we're getting there, give us another term and we'll nail it." Although by then, Hilton will be back - he is only taking a year's sabbatical.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.