How Steve Hilton helped the PM find his mojo again

David Cameron's former policy chief dashed back from California to put his imprint on the leader's most crucial speech for five years

Days before David Cameron's most important party conference speech in five years, Steve Hilton surprised more than one member of the Prime Minister's circle by "dashing back" to California for 12 hours. Mr Cameron's influential former policy chief and long-time Svengali had been in the UK for barely a few days to help with the premier's speech when he boarded a plane again.

"He needed to be back in the States for something to do with Rachel," says a friend, referring to Rachel Whetstone, Hilton's wife and a senior Google executive who had also criss-crossed the Atlantic last week. "It was literally for about 12 hours, and then he came back again. He is extraordinary." While in the UK, the couple even squeezed in two weddings – one was Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales's marriage to Tony Blair's former aide Kate Garvey, the other between Hilton's former deputy Rohan Silva and Kate MacTiernan.

Amid all this transatlantic travel and church-hopping, Hilton was helping to craft Cameron's speech. After leaving Downing Street earlier this year, he was always going to come back for conference, and he will return well in time for the next election campaign. While most of the speech had been written by last weekend, there was still some fine-tuning, mainly in response to Ed Miliband's "One Nation Labour".

Hilton left Cameron's side in May after the political version of "creative differences" over delivery and the Civil Service. This was getting the band back together.

One friend says: "He flounced out because he was disappointed at David being too compliant. David became a mediator, not a force for the sort of change Steve believes in. It was clear that it wasn't going to work with Steve being bad-tempered with civil servants and making himself unpopular, so that's why he went.

"Steve's view is that he'll help out if he can, but he has another life in the States. Of course, they go back a long way and were very close indeed, so, when he's free, he'll do it. But I think Steve also thinks it's very difficult for them to win next time."

The Prime Minister's address in Birmingham didn't, as the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, said, contain a "cor blimey moment", as the Labour leader's had. The "One Notion" riposte to Miliband's "obsession" with borrowing more taxpayers' money was effective. But the most memorable line was one that had Hilton's fingerprints all over it: "I'm not here to defend privilege, I'm here to spread it."

It was the moment when Cameron appeared to tackle what insiders say has become one of his greatest problems: the lack of self-confidence that has crept over him this year. Ministers and aides have noticed a slump in the shoulders after unremitting bad headlines following the Budget. These have included his "LOL" text messages to Rebekah Brooks, revealed to the Leveson inquiry; Boris Johnson "owning" the Olympics in a way he never could; and the Andrew Mitchell "plebgate" saga. "He is in a funk, completely drained of confidence," one minister said before the speech. And Hilton's absence from No 10 has not helped.

Now Cameron was declaring to the Symphony Hall in Birmingham, and to the wider world, that he was no longer afraid to be posh. The man embarrassed by his Bullingdon Club past, who fought shy of wearing a morning suit in the run-up to last year's royal wedding, declared: "To all those people who say: 'He wants children to have the kind of education he had at his posh school,' I say: 'Yes, you're absolutely right.' I went to a great school and I want every child to have a great education."

Cameron's closest political friends have spent years briefing journalists that he was always "true to himself" – yet this major aspect of his background was repeatedly played down. Now he has publicly embraced it, as if to say: if Boris Johnson, another alumnus of Eton and the Bullingdon, can be popular, why can't I?

Of course, it is not Johnson's schooling and university misadventures that make him popular. But Hilton, who is also on friendly terms with the London mayor, is thought to have developed the "spreading privilege" theme. It is exactly why Mitchell's rant at Downing Street police officers came at such a disastrous time. One minister says the Mitchell affair made Cameron "the angriest I've ever seen him", though he has in the past told friends he refuses to sack people on "hearsay".

While Hilton was involved in sending drafts of the speech backwards and forwards by email in the run-up to conference, he wasn't the "formative force" he has been in the past, according to friends. Yet, despite the cooling in their relationship, the Prime Minister could count on Hilton restoring his mojo.

The personal sections, particularly that in which Cameron described how people often saw the "wheelchair, not the boy" when he was out with his disabled son, Ivan, were genuinely moving. But the overall result of Hilton's input was a much harder, clearer speech; one that contained Conservative steel, appealing to the aspiring "strivers" who helped win elections for Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair.

One friend of the PM says: "People underestimate how important Steve is to David. He is the one who gave David the confidence to think he could become leader and go on to be PM. They think he was just a branding person, but, actually, his influence on David himself is huge. In a way he invented David Cameron."

Another close acquaintance of Cameron says: "They are in the middle of a dilemma about modernity. It boils down to the fact that the PM has no beliefs. Pretty well the only aspect left of the modernising agenda is gay marriage."

The impression that the right of the party is still calling the tune remains: the only concrete policies of the week were new laws permitting householders to "bash a burglar" and employee ownership plans that will erode workers' rights. The dire economic situation hangs over everything, with one cabinet minister describing it as "hell".

Cameron may have restored some self-belief, but he returns to Westminster tomorrow with the same problems, including the Mitchell saga threatening to run into a fourth week. Downing Street is being blamed for allowing that row to continue. So a shake-up is quietly under way: Ed Llewellyn, Cameron's chief of staff and one of his longest-serving aides, will focus solely on foreign affairs issues, while Oliver Dowden, a former member of the Conservative Research Department, will take over Llewellyn's duties on the domestic front. There is also speculation about the future of the communications chief Craig Oliver after Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, was sent into the conference press centre to brief the media after Cameron's speech.

Negotiations will start between the Tories and Lib Dems for the autumn statement on 5 December, which will coincide with the signing of a new coalition agreement between the two sides, to bind them close together until the 2015 election campaign starts. For some, that campaign has already started: the Tory chairman Grant Shapps's general election countdown clock may read 935 days to go, but he has devised a tightly honed "40-40" strategy – focusing on defending the 40 most marginal Tory seats and winning the most achievable 40 target seats. Significantly, party chiefs concede that "10 to 12" of these seats – possibly including Vince Cable's Twickenham – are currently held by the Tories' coalition partners.

But will Cameron's mission of "spreading privilege" help the Tories win that election outright? Bemoaning the fact that "we are in a very different world" because of economic turmoil, one Tory MP said: "Things are always going to be difficult, and the public aren't going to be happy because they can't afford two foreign holidays a year and they are worried about losing their jobs." He's surely right: they hardly feel like they're on the receiving end of "privilege".

The Tories in Birmingham

Who's up

"I want mine to wear glasses," Marilyn Monroe said of her perfect man in Some Like It Hot. And so, Michael Gove ditched the contact lenses in favour of a pair of Cutler and Gross black-rimmed specs, sending Tory leadership watchers scurrying to the betting websites. The Education Secretary was also sent in to the feral beasts' lair to spin Cameron's speech to the press.

Who's down

He was not even at conference, having chosen to stay away to let "plebgate" subside, but Andrew Mitchell's presence hung over Birmingham's Convention Centre like the wicked fairy at Sleeping Beauty's christening. Ministers openly discussed candidates to replace the Chief Whip, and, as the row threatened to run into a fourth week, one said: "Andrew's just having a very long leaving do."

Quote of the week

"If I am a mop, David Cameron, you are a broom … I congratulate you and your colleagues George Osborne the dustpan, Michael Gove the J-cloth, William Hague the sponge." Boris Johnson rummages through the oratorical kitchen cupboard for inspiration.

Double insult of the week

The former archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey managed to offend both the Jewish and gay communities when, responding to claims that those opposed to gay marriage are "bigots", said at a rally: "Let us remember the Jews in Nazi Germany. What started against them was when they started to be called names."

'In this together' food of the week

"You are our people," Cameron confusingly told the blue collar "strivers" as he delivered his speech. If proof were needed, he was given an almost plebeian Colin the Caterpillar birthday cake a day earlier. Almost, because the chocolate cake was from Marks & Spencer.

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