He's the man who made the Tories electable (so how will Dave Cameron cope without Steve Hilton?)

The marketing guru credited with transforming the image of the Conservatives is moving to America. Andy McSmith reports on a political bombshell

In the background of television shots of David Cameron at Conservative Party headquarters, you might sometimes catch a rare glimpse of a scruffy figure in open-neck shirt and jeans, who vanishes like a shy nocturnal mammal the instant he realises he is in the picture.

Scanning the press for a mention of this elusive creature is hard work, too. During May, in the avalanche of publicity about Tory victories in local elections and the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, the name of Steve Hilton cropped up in national newspapers just six times.

He is, you might think from the portrait sketched out so far, either very shy, or not very important, or both. Actually, he is a very personable, sociable individual, and is thought to be drawing the highest salary ever paid to an employee of a British political party – an eye-watering £160,000 a year, which is roughly what the Prime Minister is paid.

Steve Hilton is the man who decontaminated the Conservative Party's brand. He helped his friend, David Cameron, look and sound like no other Tory leader and masterminded the transformation of the party from the backward-looking, authoritarian, Europe-obsessed nasty party that it used to be into the eco-friendly, sophisticated, benign political machine it now seems to be.

Now, however, Mr Hilton is off to Silicon Valley in California, for a very modern and "new man" reason: he is moving for the sake of his wife's career. He is married to Rachel Whetstone, herself a significant figure in recent Tory history, who is taking up a post as vice-president of global communications and public affairs for the internet company Google.

Mr Hilton will supposedly by back in six months. In the meantime, he will make "fairly frequent" visits to London and advise Mr Cameron remotely, from a computer on the far side of the globe, where the clocks are eight hours behind London's.

In reality, it is difficult to see how Mr Hilton can ever return to the pivotal role he has played for more than two years. The world of Westminster politics is so competitive and fast changing that people who leave find it hard to come back. It is also a world where gratitude is not bankable commodity. Though the Conservative Party owes Mr Hilton a great deal, it is not certain they want his help any more.

He was always an unusual Tory. He tried to be selected as an MP, but no constituency association would have him, which may have something to do with his dress sense. He has never been seen in public wearing a tie. Jeans and an open-necked shirt are his normal work clothes. He is even rumoured to have been seen padding about the office barefoot.

In the rare photographs of him, his hair is so sparse and shaved so close that he has turned near baldness into a fashion statement. He cycles to and from work, smokes heavily, loves to chat about politics and obviously enjoys life. Little wonder then that the grey-haired, mirthless, reactionary party elders in their regulation suits and ties wondered why the Tories were spending so much money employing this young puppy.

However, he gave them their money's worth. It was Mr Hilton who, virtually single-handed, devised a strategy that took Mr Cameron into political territory where no Tory leader had been before, to connect with the young, metropolitan, liberal middle-classes who had abandoned the Conservatives as a relic of times gone by.

When Mr Cameron cycled to and from home for the benefit of the cameras, or set off for Norway in April 2006 to be photographed with huskies, or appeared on "webcameron" video blogs, or changed the party rules to increase the number of Tory candidates from ethnic minorities, or made that speech in which he was misquoted as saying "hug a hoodie", he was following the strategy devised by Steve Hilton.

It was risky, because it was always possible that Mr Cameron would alienate lifelong Conservatives and be laughed at by the people he was trying reach. William Hague's attempts to seem modern, just eight years earlier, were an embarrassment that he quickly abandoned. Mr Cameron has stuck with the strategy, and it has worked.

It helped that he and Mr Hilton were personally so close as to appear joined at the hip. Their association goes back to when Mr Hilton turned up at Conservative Central Office in Smith Square, an eager volunteer fresh from Oxford University. His family had good reason to be suspicious of the left: his parents had fled Hungary in 1956 and changed their name from Hircksac.

Mr Cameron, who is just four years older than Mr Hilton, was already working in the Conservative research department. Rachel Whetstone was taken on three months after Mr Hilton landed a full-time job there, in 1990. The couple are godparents to the Camerons' oldest child, Ivan. Ms Whetstone was Michael Howard's chief of staff while he was party leader. The enemies she made in that role would have made any future political career difficult, even if she had not compounded the problem by having an affair with a Tory peer, who happened to be Mr Cameron's stepfather-in-law.

During the 1992 election campaign, Mr Hilton's task, at the age of 22, was to liaise with the party's advertising agency, Saatchi & Saatchi. He impressed Maurice Saatchi so much that the agency poached him and set him working for five years on election campaigns around the world, from Colombia to Russia. Back in Britain, he was the brains behind the unsuccessful "demon eyes" campaign in 1997, which tried to convince voters there was something sinister behind Tony Blair's smile.

Afterwards, Mr Hilton set up his own company, Good Business, and co-wrote a book with the same name, which includes a long chapter on social responsibility. In that spirit, he encouraged Nike to launch a campaign against school bullying, and Coca-Cola to teach Africans about the dangers of HIV.

He also became fascinated by New Labour, turning up to events organised by the Labour think-tank, Demos. His friends included two prominent Blairite spin-doctors, Tim Allan and Benjamin Wegg-Prosser. Mr Cameron lured Mr Hilton back into full-time politics in December 2005, as his wife left politics for better-paid employment in Google.

The Conservatives insisted yesterday that the couple's move to California carried no political implications. A party spokesman said Mr Hilton would be "backwards and forwards" between London and California for six months, after which they would return to Britain. He added: "He is totally committed to David and the project of the modern Conservative Party. Nothing changes. It is not impossible to do the job Steve is doing for the party from out there, despite the time difference."

But others will wonder why someone with politics in his blood would quit the stage just when the Conservative Party has the scent of power in its nostrils. A comparison would be if, in 1995, Alastair Campbell had announced he was leaving the country for several months, expecting to return to Tony Blair's right hand when he came back.

This is the second time in a week that a Cameron adviser has moved on. Last week, it emerged that Mr Cameron's speechwriter and fellow Old Etonian, Danny Kruger, who is credited with scripting the leader's acclaimed address to last October's party conference, has also had an amicable parting of the ways. He is putting social responsibility into practice by helping his wife, Emma, to run a charity called Only Connect, that helps rehabilitate convicts.

Another Old Etonian who is no longer around Conservative headquarters is George Bridges, former campaign chief, who went on honeymoon last July, and never returned to the party. Bridges's departure exactly coincided with the return ofLord Ashcroft, the man who bankrolled the party during the lean years, who has now an office at Conservative headquarters in Millbank. Though Lord Ashcroft does not directly intervene on policy issues, his political sympathies are with the two big names in the Shadow Cabinet, William Hague and David Davis, who are identified with a more traditional right-wing Toryism than Mr Cameron and his Notting Hill crowd, who operate out of the House of Commons.

Whatever the reasons for Mr Hilton's absence, its effect must be to weaken the modernising element in the Conservative Party. Though he is an authentic Conservative, believing in Conservative causes such as low taxation, he genuinely believes in the modern setting in which he helped Mr Cameron to place traditional Tory ideas. He organised two day-long seminars, on inequality and on localism, making Mr Cameron sit through both. He even revealed to his friend Tim Allan that he had become so disillusioned with the Conservatives in the days when they were led by Mr Hague and paid for by Lord Ashcroft, that he voted for the Green Party in 2001.

How deeply David Cameron believes in all this new-look Conservatism is another question. Some suspect that he adopted the strategy as an imaginative way to dig the party out of the hole into which it sank 15 years ago. Perhaps now that the Conservatives have their biggest opinion poll lead for a generation, he has decided he does not need to try the patience of traditional Tories any more. If that is so, Steve Hilton might just as well be living in Silicon Valley.

News
peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
News
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
people
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Media baron Rupert Murdoch owns News Corps and 20th Century Fox
theatrePlaywright David Williamson is struggling to find a big name to star as the media mogul
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
books
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

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
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
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

Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Functional/Full Life Cycle

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Func...

SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

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?