Those who look at some of the more excitable publications may have concluded that David Cameron’s Downing Street is on the verge of civil war. It is alleged that Steve Hilton, the principal adviser on strategy, is so frustrated with George Osborne’s caution that he is about to resign. These accounts provide idle amusement. But in the immortal words of Sir Bernard Ingham, they are bunkum and balderdash.
Most readers of this column will have been involved in complex enterprises, with unpredictable variables. In meetings to discuss such matters, it is quite likely there will be sharp exchanges and heated moments. In Number 10, the agenda is vastly larger and more complicated. So why should its discussion sessions be placid? This is not to be confused with the Gordon Brown era, when the PM’s staff were trapped between the storms of rage and the rocks of indecision. Absolute in his own intellectual self-confidence, Mr Cameron believes policies should be hammered out on the anvil of debate. To that end, he has surrounded himself with very able people, most of whom have worked together for years and are friends as well as colleagues. During their meetings, there is plenty of tension: creative tension.
So how did the fantasies gain circulation? Probably because some young special adviser, on his way to the pub, passed a room and heard raised voices. By the time the third round had been bought, one plus one was equalling 17 and climbing.
There is another factor. Mr Hilton may well be the most extraordinary character ever to have worked in Number 10. He is certainly the scruffiest, at least since the days when chimney sweeps sent their boys up the chimney. In the office, he walks around barefoot. As he is bald, he would only need a robe to look like an undernourished Franciscan. But there is a delicious paradox. Margaret Thatcher was just about the best-dressed inhabitant of Downing Street. Yet she and Mr Hilton have a lot in common. This is not because she – most improbably – quoted St Francis’s prayer when she arrived on the threshold of Number 10. The two are both outsiders, with the impatience that brings. She was not only the first woman PM, at a time when that seemed equally improbable; she also had an implacably restless temperament. So too does Mr Hilton, whose father fled Hungary in 1956, and who is even more impatient than she was.
He is driven to fury by the waste in Britain of vast sums on social projects that only add to social misery. No socialist can fulminate more pyrotechnically about the destruction of life chances under the present system and the need for fundamental change to liberate human potential. An old-fashioned Tory will assume that human endeavours often end. By those criteria, Mr Hilton is not a Tory. His eccentricity of deportment makes him conspicuous, and others suspicious. People are simply not used to discalced Conservatives. In the Middle Ages, those who were uneasy about events but did not want to criticise the monarch often denounced the king’s evil counsellors. Some Tories who are unhappy about aspects of government policy have cast Mr Hilton in that role. But in Downing Street, his restlessness is greatly valued.
Imagine a Downing Street meeting. Mr Hilton is demanding the impossible, by yesterday. Mr Osborne is considering the political and fiscal implications. Oliver Letwin, the cabinet office minister, and Jeremy Heywood are working out the legislative consequences. Ed Llewellyn, the chief of staff, is organising the paperwork while also ready to ply the fire-hoses if – when – Mr Hilton boils over. Mr Cameron is there to take the decisions. It is a formidable way to run government.
It also has formidable objectives: a cultural revolution in the public services and the relationship between citizen and state. Mr Cameron has embarked upon the most dramatic domestic reform since Clement Attlee. The comparison is doubly apt: scale and aims. Attleeism was the apogee of social democracy: the Big State. Lady Thatcher overthrew economic Attleeism. Mr Cameron will finish this, replacing social Attleeism with the Big Society. There will be the odd noisy meeting in Number 10. That is a sign, not of breakdown, but of work in progress.
The writer is a political commentator