Cameron's blue-sky thinker has his head in the clouds, say Tories

Ministers rush to distance themselves from Steve Hilton's idea to scrap maternity leave

Ministers yesterday disowned controversial ideas floated by David Cameron's strategy guru, including the scrapping of maternity leave and consumer rights and the closure of jobcentres.

Steve Hilton came under fire after it emerged that he had put forward numerous proposals to boost Britain's fragile recovery. His friends blamed the disclosure on obstructive civil servants who do not admire his free-thinking approach to policy.

The 42-year-old former advertising man, who cycles to work and walks around Downing Street in a T-shirt and socks, is seen as one of Mr Cameron's closest two advisers – the other being the Chancellor, George Osborne. The Prime Minister admires Mr Hilton's original thinking although he often backs Mr Osborne when the two men clash. Insiders say Mr Hilton has a "scattergun" approach to policy ideas, many of which do not get off the ground. The suggestions leaked yesterday look certain to join the list.

Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Business Secretary, said: "These proposals are most certainly not government policy. Steve is a fine blue-skies thinker but this is, I'm afraid, not part of what we're going to do."

Naturally, the Opposition seized on Mr Hilton's rather quirky ideas. Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "It is hard to imagine anyone who has any idea about working mothers or their importance to the British economy proposing the abolition of maternity leave – unless of course they think mothers shouldn't work at all."

Mr Hilton is said to have clashed with Jeremy Heywood, the permanent secretary at No 10, after proposing that Mr Cameron ignore European Union plans to increase the rights of temporary workers. "Steve asked why the PM had to obey the law," one insider reportedly said. "Jeremy had to explain that if David Cameron breaks the law he could be put in prison."

It is not the first time the pair have crossed swords. Mr Heywood and Sir Gus O'Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, were not amused when Mr Hilton persuaded Mr Cameron to attack foot-dragging civil servants as the "enemies of enterprise" in a speech to the Conservative Party's spring conference in March. Mr Hilton, who used to work for Maurice Saatchi, is married to Michael Howard's communications chief, Rachel Whetstone. Perhaps his most derided idea came when the Conservatives were still in opposition: he suggested buying cloud-bursting technology to provide Britain with more sunshine.

As the architect of Mr Cameron's flagship "Big Society" theme, Mr Hilton has his own enemies inside the Tory party. Some blamed him for Mr Cameron's failure to win an overall majority at the last election, saying the concept had bombed on the doorstep and that voters did not understand it.

However, some right-wing Tory MPs who viewed Mr Hilton's modernising crusade with suspicion have recently come to regard him more favourably. He is a traditionalist in some key areas, with a strong belief in the family. He has become so frustrated by the way the EU and the European Convention on Human Rights restrict the Government's room for manoeuvre that he is tempted by the idea of withdrawing from the EU, to the delight of Tory Eurosceptics.

Mr Hilton has also impressed Thatcherite MPs by urging Mr Cameron not to water down his reforms to welfare, health and other public services. "If Steve hadn't fought his corner, the NHS reforms would have been dropped completely," one insider said yesterday.

Sources say the restless and impatient Mr Hilton – described by one colleage as "very volatile" – is frustrated by Mr Osborne's caution. The Chancellor has an unwavering eye on the 2015 election, while Mr Hilton believes Mr Cameron may only get one chance to transform Britain and so should push through radical policies on all fronts. Critics say that leads to "mad" ideas like those which surfaced yesterday.

Recently there was speculation that Mr Hilton's frustrations might persuade him to walk out on Mr Cameron. Allies insist the moment has passed and that he is there for the duration.

He's no 'Thick of It' caricature, says Cooper

Some Labour MPs were quick to compare Hilton to The Thick of It character Stewart Pearson, an advertising and brand-management guru who pads around at Tory HQ, spewing out impenetrable "blue-sky" policy plans to the bemusement of ministers. Others said he reminded them of Julius Nicholson, the PM's "Blue skies" Special Adviser, who produces an unending stream of radical and unworkable policy reforms. But Yvette Cooper, the shadow Home Secretary, added: "Steve Hilton isn't a free-thinking academic or a character from The Thick of It pushing zany plans. He was appointed by David Cameron as one of his closest government advisers alongside Andy Coulson. The fact that he supports such a crackers and unfair plan as proposing the abolition of maternity leave says something ominous about this Government and once again about David Cameron's judgement too."

Adam Sherwin

Genius or madman? Hilton's ideas dissected

Plan: Abolition of maternity leave/rights

Crazy? Superficially attractive to bosses who can't be bothered with the pregnancy thing. It would cut business costs and improve profitability. But doesn't the nation need more babies to counter its ageing population?

Plan: Ignore European laws on temporary workers

Crazy? This would push wages lower and make life harder for "British workers" to get jobs. Overall it would boost GDP through lowering costs and prices. Plus if they are only temporary workers they're unlikely to retire in the UK and claim benefits. Good idea.



Plan: Ban government press officers

Crazy? Temporary loss of output but presumably they would be redeployed more productively elsewhere in the economy. If they're lucky; used spin doctors are a difficult market right now.



Plan: Close all jobcentres and fund community groups

Crazy? Probably a bad idea. Anything that brings jobs and the unemployed together is a valuable thing, and ought to pay for itself, long term. But when was the last time a community group launched a successful business?



Plan: Cloud-bursting technology to provide more sunshine

Crazy? Great idea, apart from the unproven technology, unknowable consequences and vast cost.



Plan: Abolish consumer rights

Crazy? Not as mad as it sounds; caveat emptor served us well for centuries. Abolition would, though, increase production of "economic bads" – frauds and swindles that reduce economic well-being.

Sean O'Grady

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
Sport
Mario Balotelli (left) trudges off at half-time last night, to be substituted during the interval
football
Life and Style
Could you tell the difference between this and an organic alternative?
food + drink

Culinary experts in The Netherlands thought it was 'fresh' and 'tasty'

News
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to US
Life and Style
tech

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

News
New look: Zellweger at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday

Actress sees off speculation about her face in an amazing way

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
News
Call me Superman: one of many unusual names chosen by Chinese students
newsChinese state TV offers advice for citizens picking a Western moniker
Arts and Entertainment
film

Marvel has released first teaser trailer week early after it leaked online

Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
News
Let’s pretend: KidZania in Tokyo
educationKidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

EBD Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a quailed Teacher ...

Part Time SEN 1:1 Teacher

£40 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you an experience SEN Te...

ICT/Business Studies Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: ICT/Business Studies ...

Front end web developer - URGENT CONTRACT

£250 - £300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT** Our...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?