David Cameron's closest adviser has become a liability rather than an asset
Between David Cameron’s election as leader and his hoped-for entry into 10 Downing Street, Steve Hilton will have cost the Conservative party at least a million pounds. Despite vast debts, the Tories are reported to be paying their chief strategist an unprecedented £270,000-a- year salary. Yet, apart from having helped to make Cameron leader, Hilton has no other notable political successes to his name. In the disastrous 1997 and 2005 general election campaigns, Michael Portillo’s two failed leadership bids, and Steve Norris’s two doomed efforts to become London mayor, Hilton has been there, not always in charge, but always on the losing side. So why does Cameron have such faith in him?
Hilton is what Cameron is always (wrongly) accused of being, a brilliant PR man. The son of Hungarian parents who escaped to the West, he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital, then a place at Oxford. In the post-Thatcher era, Hilton became an acolyte – first of Chris Patten, then of Maurice Saatchi. If Hilton has political opinions, they are theirs. He has a self-consciously languid dinner-party manner on the Patten model, allied to strenuously up-to-date technocracy in the Saatchi manner. No policy prescriptions result from this combination, other than a resentment of party activists and a trite enthusiasm for novelty and success. Hilton concluded that these virtues were to be found wherever the loathed Tory grassroots were not.
Like Portillo, Hilton adopted the Blairites’ conceit of styling themselves as modernisers. For the Tories, this meant above all three things: Euroscepticism must be reserved for private consumption; socially progressive attitudes must be paraded at every opportunity; and a healthy respect for Blair’s electoral success must be transformed into the dogma that Blairism had actually worked in government.
These were not aims, but tactics. The party was squared with the implausible claim that Cameron would campaign to win as a Blairite but govern as a Conservative. Hilton’s genius, his friends assured the Lobby, lay in understanding this, and convincing those vital few others who needed to be convinced. Yet there remains a painful contrast between how the Blairites behaved in opposition and Hilton’s approach. The Blairite will-to-power was a genuinely self-critical reappraisal. Beliefs that had sincerely brought people into left-wing politics were either revised or rejected. Hilton’s feat, on the other hand, has been to enable one segment of the Tory elite to sneer at their own supporters. For the “Nasty Party” was always understood to be them, not us.
Hilton married his fellow party apparatchik, Rachel Whetstone, then gatekeeper to Michael Howard as Tory leader, and now a PR flack for Google in California, where they both now live. Where Labour modernisers committed themselves to policies which forced them to renounce their previous beliefs, every modernising policy urged on Cameron by Hilton left the latter secure in his comfort zone. Whatever narrative-building purpose they were put to, progressive attitudes to sexuality, drug abuse or the environment have this in common: they were the opinions Hilton’s circle had always preferred. They weren’t hard decisions taken, or personal convictions renounced. In private life, Hilton had little time for Tories. In 2001, he even boasted that he had voted Green.
Moreover, not only did Hilton overestimate the achievements of Blair’s governments, he failed utterly to counter Blair’s politics. Hilton opposed such tactical successes as Michael Ashcroft and Lynton Crosby were able to achieve under Howard in the 2005 election. Nor could Hilton ever devise a truly convincing anti-Blair strategy – save for hoping that Blair’s replacement by Brown would solve the problem. Indeed, Hilton’s strategy is now more or less the one for which he damned Hague: one more heave.
Hilton’s past overshadows Cameron’s future. The man whom safe seats wouldn’t select became the most determined foe of association autonomy. The green evangelist for social responsibility now commutes from California. The apostle of clarity and repetition of message is now presiding over a platform that is hopelessly diffuse. Cameron’s pledge to maintain Labour’s spending plans was supposed to be axiomatic; now it has been dumped. Even Ken Clarke is back – an admission that the Hilton strategy has failed. Though Cameron has maintained a precarious poll lead, he should be much further ahead of a PM whose economic strategy has been so discredited. Though public criticism has focused on the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, privately there is disquiet about Cameron’s reliance on Hilton.
One disgruntled Tory MP says: “When Dave looks into a mirror, he sees Steve because he knows he’s not there himself.” If that was ever true, it is no longer the case. Cameron doubtless felt he needed Hilton when the task was to “decontaminate the brand”. Since 2005, however, Cameron has matured into a capable leader with confidence in his own judgment – but little in his party. Yet he is still saddled with an adviser who is utterly out of touch with the nation. All previous Conservative eminences grises have been servants, not masters. Hilton is a guru without a doctrine, a winner without victories – and a spin-doctor whom Cameron should by now have outgrown.