Steve Hilton: the Tory guru out of step with political realities

Were he not so well acquainted with Britain’s prime minister, it is unlikely you would have heard of Steve Hilton. That the early days of David Cameron’s leadership saw the Conservative party shed its “nasty” image for one resplendent with community, environment and localism is testimony to his undoubted genius for political branding. It still mesmerises much of Westminster. But whatever substance lay behind the vision, it survived but a few months in government.

There are two ways to relate how the vision failed. The first is heroic, and mostly wrong. The blue-skies thinker dared to attack the structures that crush the little man. Distant, unaccountable power, thick-witted rules and slovenly bureaucrats — all were to fall. Ordinary people would regain control over their lives. The machine beat him with a stifling alliance of bureaucrats, small “c” conservatives and carping Liberal Democrats. The butterfly intellectual was crushed on the wheels of the status quo.

I stood witness to the more prosaic truth. Steve — as he was universally known in Whitehall — sprouted policies doomed to dissolve on contact with the world they hoped to change. Tories more than any other tribe know that new ideas are often bad, and the revolutionary ones worst of all. Steve’s were a variant on an old theme repeated endlessly at minor party fringes: the world is ghastly, dare to dream how it might be otherwise and ignore the naysayers. All that marked him apart was having the Tory leadership on speed dial.

I served the same government as he did. While Steve roamed imperially around Number 10, I was a lowly Lib Dem in the business department. But at first I felt on the same team, such was Steve’s charisma, communitarian outlook and disdain for authority in those dreamlike early days of coalition. Even his eccentric dress-sense marked him as the sort happy to muse on Lib Dem themes: wresting data out of companies, say, or running a Nordic summit at a trendy art gallery.

But the bonhomie faded, and in place of the emollient free thinker emerged a fizzing Catherine wheel of chaotic political force spiralling through Whitehall. Prejudices formed in a blink threatened entities that had stood firm for years. He tried to replace Business Link, which hosted thousands of pages of company advice, with a website for promoting start-up culture. UK Trade and Investment was threatened because of a badly run meeting in Silicon Valley years before. More than new thinking, such spasms just embodied an old grudge against government itself.

There is a case for tolerating genius — a Keynes or an Einstein who first master what they aim to overthrow. But “Hiltonism” merely fed off the man’s inability to grasp a system he longed to control. He did not so much collide with reality as arrive late to meetings with it, shout at it, question what makes it tick and then storm off, appalled at reality’s obstinacy.

A gimmick called the Red Tape Challenge put this in the clearest light. Regulation stood for everything Steve loathed and misunderstood in government. Every past attempt to hack it away having failed, a classic Hilton idea was born. All 21,000 would be put online, and through the wisdom of crowds the public would root out and elect the worst for destruction.

It took a moment’s thought to see how this would fail. Web-based ideas take “the tyranny of whoever turns up” to a new level. In this case, those who did turn up mostly lobbied for the status quo. Regulations, moreover, mesh together and cannot be picked off as in a buffet.

So the challenge morphed ironically into a variant on “Whitehall knows best”. Elite officials would confront his hastily formed views on rules unfamiliar to all — Furniture and Fire regulations (1989) stand out in the memory — and debate whether they were needed or not. Everything that really protects the little man — consultation, legal review, the preservation of certain rights — was dismissed as artificial obstruction. Only the determination of hardy officials saved the public from the return of flammable sofas.

After two years of this, Steve left for the purer air of California, there to lecture on politics. To popping flashbulbs, he returned this week to flog a book, More Human, about those power structures he had failed to dismantle. The room thronged with his former colleagues, now enjoying the undivided power he had craved for so long. They used his absence to work with reality rather than rail impotently against it — a lesson unlikely to be found in his book.


giles.wilkes@ft.com

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