Is there a campaign to discredit Cameron's favourite moderniser?
A series of leaks suggests that somebody wants to undermine Steve Hilton – and Tory traditionalists resentful of his touchy-feely politics are in the frame.
Saturday 09 January 2010
Somebody has it in for Steve Hilton, the advertising wizard who packaged and marketed David Cameron. Somebody – almost certainly a colleague in the Conservative party – is intent on keeping him out of the team of advisers whom David Cameron is expected to take into Downing Street.
The evidence of a conspiracy is the stream of revelations calculated to embarrass him at a critical moment in the political cycle. The main ones could only have come from Conservatives who think Mr Hilton has too much influence for the party's good.
First there was the leak of five "Strategy Bulletins" he had circulated to Tory MPs between 16 October and 4 December, which turned up in The Times a week ago, and then found other outlets. They reveal Mr Hilton's boyish enthusiasm for up-to-the-minute political ideas. "What does he think we do?" a furious Tory shadow minister demanded in The Mail on Sunday. "Does he think we sit on our hands waiting to read emails from a 10-year-old who has just discovered Conservatism, on a £200,000 salary, in some farmhouse, with a wife who works for Google? It's crap. Steve Hilton has discovered Conservatism without any understanding of it. He has just bumped into it and said, 'Hey, guys, it's amazing!'."
Mr Hilton was the brains behind the poster campaign launched across the country on Monday, with a giant picture of Mr Cameron alongside the slogan: "We can't go on like this. I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS."
It was an invitation to vote for Mr Cameron and forget his party. That pronoun, "I" cut the shadow Chancellor George Osborne out of the picture, along with everyone else, and was sure to create wounded feelings.
To add to the doubts, the Daily Mirror, which tailed Mr Hilton for two days to obtain pictures of him jumping red lights on his bike, also came up with evidence that Mr Cameron's picture had been touched up to give him more hair and pouting lips. Questioned about this on the Today programme, Mr Cameron replied tetchily: "Look, I don't produce the picture or the poster" – not very encouraging for the person who did.
Then there was the sudden, late appearance of a story that is actually more than a year old. On 1 October 2008, at the end of the Conservative conference in Birmingham, Mr Hilton had an altercation with a member of staff at New Street station as he was hurrying for a train and could not lay hands on his ticket.
Allegedly, he called the official a "wanker". He was arrested, but later de-arrested and served with a £80 penalty notice for disorder. It is not the fine that will have hurt Mr Hilton, but the humiliation of having the story all over the media in the very week when electioneering began in earnest.
Mr Hilton is not a politician but an advertising man who was a rising star at Saatchi & Saatchi, and who voted Green in 2001. The most familiar image of him is as the prototype for Stewart Pearson, the fictional, bald, casually dressed Tory spin doctor in Armando Iannucci's The Thick of It, who regales staff with buzz phrases like, "knowledge is porridge".
Friends say Mr Hilton, the son of a Hungarian immigrant who changed his name from Hircksac, is nothing like his fictional counterpart, yet he cycles to work in shorts, never wears a suit, is almost bald, and uses phrases such as "harnessing the insights of behavioural economics and social psychology can help you achieve your policy goals in a more effective and light touch way".
He has more influence over David Cameron than most, if not all, MPs. His wife, Rachel Whetstone, was an adviser to Michael Howard before she became head of communications for Google. They recently bought a £1,050,000 house in Oxfordshire, seven miles from the Camerons'.
While some of the sniping at Hilton may be fired by jealousy, it has a political purpose, and the success or failure of his enemies will influence the party's future. A few months ago, there was an attack on his strategy in the right-wing magazine, Standpoint. It was summarised as: "Euroscepticism must be reserved for private consumption; socially progressive attitudes paraded at every opportunity; and a healthy respect for Blair's electoral success must be transformed into the dogma that Blairism worked."
He is the guru who persuaded David Cameron to cycle to work, be seen without a tie, to be photographed in the Arctic, and come over as a policy-light, eco-friendly Tony Blair lookalike. This makes him anathema to Conservatives who want less image and more policy, less modernity and more banging of the traditional Tory drums.
Recently, Mr Hilton was reported to be embroiled in a row with Cameron's head of policy, James O'Shaughnessy, over how much detail should be in the manifesto. This has opened up a battle over who will get jobs as special advisers in a Cameron government. This is a sensitive matter: the Tories have attacked Labour over their number of special advisers – about 70. The Tories will be open to a charge of hypocrisy unless they restrict the number of political advisers they employ at public expense.
Until recently, it was assumed that Mr Hilton, Mr O'Shaughnessy, and the party's head of communications, Andy Coulson, would be senior Downing Street advisers. Mr Hilton, it is reported, is out to block O'Shaughnessy's appointment.
David Cameron owes so much to Mr Hilton that it seems impossible that his future could be in question, but if a paid adviser attracts bad publicity, he becomes dispensable.
"Let's imagineer the narrative," the fictional Stewart Pearson has said. Just now, the narrative needs re-imagineering for Steve Hilton.
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