If you haven’t followed Steve Hilton’s progress since the 2010 election, you may still think of him as the man he was before it took place – the aide who crafted the leadership election slogan “Change to Win” for David Cameron, clapped the new Conservative leader on a bicycle (while his papers followed in a car behind), plonked him on a husky-drawn sled in the Arctic and dreamed up the message “Vote Blue, Go Green: the T-shirted, tieless, shoeless, tantrum-vulnerable, follically-bereft, midget Svengali who wrote sentences for the then Opposition Leader’s speeches that were sometimes even longer than this one.
In other words, you will see him as Mr Modernisation – and thus curse him for having either succeeded or failed to transform the Tories (according to your point of view). So you are likely to greet the news that he is not returning to Downing Street for the election campaign with a cheer, adding afterwards only: good riddance.
If so, you are taking a partial, distorted and unfair view. For the man who allegedly voted Green in one general election – and later invited us all to join the government of Britain in another – is also the man who hates the corporatist consensus. Once ensconced in Number 10, Hilton strove to end maternity leave, implement the Beecroft plan more or less in full, privatise the M25, suspend consumer rights laws, abolish jobcentres, leave the EU and repeal the Equality Act (the final project he was working on before his departure from Downing Street).
Of course, voting Green and detesting some establishments goes together, but what motivated Hilton from the start was less media management than policy delivery. The author of Good Business was always interested in economic prosperity, public service reform and social renewal – hence the Big Society. But what seems to drive him most is a belief in people power almost Bennite in its intensity.
If Cameron is “Willie Whitelaw with a IPod”, as he was once described, then Hilton is Edmund Burke transported to San Fransisco, complete with crowd-sourcing app. He believes that by freeing up data so that voters can get their hands on it, unleashing a hurricane of transparency and accountability to howl through Whitehall, and devolving powers to local communities we will all be made wealthier and happier. Running alongside this turbulent philosophy was the belief that “everything must change by 2015”.
This was never likely to be compatible with Cameron’s irreducibly pragmatic core – or, perhaps more tellingly, George Osborne’s disciplined belief in strategic control. The Chancellor’s instinct is to think that a government can do two or three Big Things. Hilton’s is to try and make it do lots of little things, and all at once – to make a hundred flowers bloom and a thousand thoughts be spoken.
To be sure, Lynton Crosby’s discipline is producing an infinitely more coherent election campaign than the Maoist chaos of 2010. This seems to be a sign of how Hilton lost altogether – of how his fissile ideas were eased out for a more straightforward, simple conservatism. But is that view really right? Certainly, localism has limped along very slowly, with the defeat of most City Mayor proposals; a mass of new mutuals and co-operatives has not come into being to bid for public services; Hilton lost at least as many scraps as he won.
However, there is another way of viewing the totality of this government. What will it be remembered for? Each of us will give his own answer, but mine is: more public service reform in a single term than Margaret Thatcher managed until her third – in schools, in welfare, in policing, in Whitehall itself, all reliant on the publication of data (a trick that Jeremy Hunt has been quick to learn).
More by dedication and luck than central planning, determined Ministers with strong teams of SpAds have driven through reform. Theresa May’s crime maps, Gove’s overhauled Ofsted, Hunt’s MyNHS data information service, Francis Maude’s Contract Finder site, Eric Pickles’s publication of spending of over £250 online…all these have been means of making government more accountable and transparent. Each of them have been effected by powerful Ministers. Some of these have had exceptionally single-minded teams of special advisers. And a few them have proceeded without letting Downing Street know very much about what they were up to.
This independent-minded, information-led change – part of what I call Grown-Up Government – by focused Secretaries of State is, in a way, Hilton’s legacy as well as theirs. You cannot run ship-shape government Steve-style. However, we wouldn’t have had nearly so much public service improvement without him. Whether or not sunshine is winning the day, Hilton helped to bust a lot of clouds.