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.