Steve Hilton is a remarkable fellow. I vividly remember our first meeting, in late 1990. I had been told that there was this lad o' pairts in the Conservative Research Department who would be well worth getting to know. So it proved. Over dinner, he talked about education, with force and passion. He had been lucky. Winning a scholarship to Christ's Hospital, he had then gone to Oxford. An older half-brother had been less fortunate. After a lousy education, he had merely drifted, before falling off Brighton Pier and drowning. Steve wanted to save others from such a silly waste of a life. He was convinced that schools should be at the heart of a Conservative programme for social reform.
It was not an original message, but I had never heard it expressed with such zeal, such intensity. This boy was a youngster to watch. I asked about his plans, making the obvious point that he would be of immense value to politics, in a range of capacities. He was unsure. After the Election, he was thinking of back-packing round the world. Alternatively, he might open a Hungarian restaurant in New York. I somehow suspected that these romantic ideas would not come to fruition. The inhabitants of the hippy hostels in the South China Seas would not benefit from Steve's views on education. The inhabitants of Manhattan would have to make do with their existing eateries.
The day after the '92 Election, I phoned John Patten, then Education Secretary, to ask if he was looking for a political advisor. If so, I had a suggestion: Steve Hilton. John was interested, until I mentioned Steve's age, then 24. "Look:" I persevered, "if he's good enough, he's old enough". John was politely unpersuaded. For a few hours. The next day, I had the late Emily Blatch on the phone. She was John Patten's Minister of State in the Lords. Could I help her track down Steve? John would have phoned himself but he was rushing around out of London (back then, mobile phones were still in their unreliable infancy). I went into action: too late. Steve turned the offer down, along with the two other political advisorships he had been offered.
I was not surprised. I thought that education might entice him, but there was an alternative. One evening during the election, I was in Chris Patten's office (he was Party Chairman) with a few others, including Maurice Saatchi. Steve arrived, not in the least overawed. "Hello, Maurice. Got a cigar then?". There was a barely perceptible frisson before Maurice fished out a Havana about as long as Steve. "This relationship is only going one way", thought I. So it proved. Within hours of the Election, Steve was hired, by M and C Saatchi. A few weeks later, I ran into Maurice. "How's Hilton faring?" "Wonderful. Reminds me of the young me".
There have followed twenty years of uninterrupted success, with one glitch. In 1995, Steve supported John Redwood's leadership challenge. A lot of Anglo-Saxon was vented upon his bald pate. It seemed to be an incomprehensible lapse into eccentricity. Not so: it was an outburst of a recurrent Hilton characteristic: uncontrollable radical impatience. Crippled by revolting backbenchers, the Major government had lost most of its momentum. Steve was not interested in the reasons why. He just could not bear the feeling of being adrift.
By the early 2000s, as the Tory party seemed more and more adrift, this had matured into a political philosophy. Steve had come to believe that the British system of government was profoundly defective. It spent more and more money. It arrogated to itself more and more power. It delivered – less and less. Steve was convinced that fundamental reform was necessary, to empower individuals and localities, to roll back the state and roll forward society: the Big Society.
Steve started with several advantages. He had an outsider's freedom. Not an old-fashioned Tory, he was wholly unimpressed by traditional Tory pessimism, or by the belief that original sin is the best summary of the human condition. The child of Hungarian exiles, he was not locked into any constrained version of Britishness. Nor did he acknowledge political constraints. He believes that instead of trying to anticipate the opinion polls in the year after next, governments should just do what they think is right and argue for it with conviction.
Steve started with several disadvantages: namely, everything in the previous paragraph. The lack of constraints has created too much scope for impatience. The comparison has been made with Margaret Thatcher. It is both relevant and amusing. No-one who ever worked in No.10 was more smartly turned out than she was. No-one who ever worked in No.10 was more scruffily attired than Steve Hilton. On a less superficial level, they both shared the same thunder-bolt throwing discontent with the state of the country and the weaknesses of its government. But there was one crucial and unbridgeable divide. Margaret Thatcher was an electoral politician, and a pretty good one. Although she would never have acknowledged the constraints of the electoral process, she never forgot them. She always wanted to win.
Steve Hilton is not an electoral politician. He is a root-and-branch reformer. It must often be so frustrating to be a Tory in government under the present dispensation, constantly having to remember that you are in a Coalition and that Britain is in the EU. Some monks believe in scourging themselves. Well, de gustibus non est disputandum, and I suppose it is better than small boys. As few Tories have masochistic inclinations. the double laceration from Europe and the Liberals is almost intolerable. Steve certainly found it so.
That is not why he is taking a sabbatical from No.10. Although "spending more time with one's family" has become a joke, that is precisely what Steve intends to do. Apart from being an immensely likeable fellow, the private man is warm, uxorious and sentimental. His wife, Rachel, who is vastly and profitably successful with Google, has to spend a lot of time in California. They have two young children. Steve wants to live with his family. Who can blame him?
Does this mean that the Government will lose its edge? Not in the slightest. Steve has been important. He is an endless source of creative intellectual disruption. When told that such-and-such cannot be done, his response is predictable: "Why?" Because he is always prepared to press his point, even at the cost – which he would not recognise as a cost – of infuriating his colleagues, he has pushed forward the frontiers of the do-able, especially on localism and transparency in government. But the three most radical changes of the past two years were education, welfare and the cuts. Although Steve was supportive of all three, they would have happened without him. Equally, the Big Society is still lost in the small print. It may be that Steve is too close, too emotionally involved, to rectify that, in which case his absence could have its uses.
Over the next couple of years, the Government's principal task is to implement the changes that have already been made and to ensure that they work. That means a slog through the bocage of administration: not Steve's forte. But he will be back, with 43 ideas that he picked up in California, all for immediate implementation. Once again, the corridors of No.10 will resound with that well-known cry. "Why?"