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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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle