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.

Arts & Entertainment
The Honesty Policy is a group of anonymous Muslims who believe that the community needs a space to express itself without shame or judgement
music
News
Waitrose will be bringing in more manned tills
newsOverheard in Waitrose: documenting the chatter in 'Britain's poshest supermarket'
Arts & Entertainment
tvIt might all be getting a bit much, but this is still the some of the finest TV ever made, says Grace Dent
Life & Style
life
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
musicJethro Tull frontman leads ‘prog rock’ revival
Arts & Entertainment
Back in the suit: There are only so many variations you can spin on the lives or adventures of Peter Parker
filmReview: Almost every sequence and set-up in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 seems familiar from some earlier superhero film
Life & Style
Father and son: Michael Williams with son Edmund
lifeAs his son’s bar mitzvah approaches, CofE-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys he’s experienced in learning about his family’s other faith
Sport
Gareth Bale dribbled from inside his own half and finished calmly late in the final to hand Real a 2-1 win at the Mestalla in Valencia
sport
Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
comedy... writes Jenny Collier, the comedian whose recent show was cancelled because there were 'too many women' on the bill
News
House proud: keeping up with the Joneses now extends to children's playhouses
newsLuxury playhouses now on the market for as much as £800
News
news
Life & Style
Stir it up: the writer gets a lichen masterclass from executive chef Vivek Singh of the Cinnamon restaurants
food + drinkLichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines
Extras
indybest
Arts & Entertainment
Ken Loach (left) and Mike Leigh who will be going head to head for one of cinema's most coveted prizes at this year's Cannes Film Festival
filmKen Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
News
The academic, Annamaria Testa, has set out on her website a list of 300 English words that she says Italians ought to stop using
newsAcademic speaks out against 'Italianglo' - the use of English words in Italian language
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit