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Why would Hilton leave?

By Paul Goodman
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Stories about "splits" are to most journalists in the lobby what rice is for many people in India - a staple diet, the writing and eating in each case being a necessity and a habit.  When the former involves people with contrasting attitudes and outlooks, such as George Osborne and Steve Hilton, they flow almost automotically: Murdoch v Google, cavalier v roundhead, realism v romance, heart v head, liberal v Tory.

The differences of temperament between the two men, perhaps David Cameron's closest political companions, have been painted in stark terms.  It's true that the ways in which they view politics are different.  Hilton seems to see it as a transformational activity, almost like religion; Osborne as one with more down-to-earth aims, carried out in a flawed world - more like fighting a war.

If the innermost circles of a Government contain two men with such contradistinct worldviews, and one of them is unhappy over a policy decision - as Hilton clearly is over the NHS plan - it will follow that there's speculation about his position.

Perhaps Hilton will indeed leave Downing Street in due course.  But if one looks across the broad sweep of what the Government's doing, there's a strong case for arguing that the divergence between the two men's views is exaggerated - and, therefore, one for asking: since that's so, why would Hilton go?

Consider the following policy areas:

  • Education: Michael Gove is driving for more academies and free schools.  The Chancellor is known to support the Education Secretary's plans strongly.  No disagreement there.
  • Welfare: Iain Duncan Smith is drawing up a new Universal Credit and Chris Grayling is masterminding a Work Programme aimed at the long-term unemployed.  Again, the Chancellor supports these proposals in principle, even doesn't always agree with the detail in practice.  He believes strongly that welfare should be one of the Government's two big areas of public service reform, together with education.  So no disagreement there, either.
  • Police: Theresa May is charged with introducing elected police commissioners.  Again, no disagreement.
  • Public Sector Pensions.  Osborne sees public sector pension reform as indispensible if taxpayers' long-terms commitments are to be reduced.  Once again, no disagreement.
  • Big Society, localism and public service reform.  The Chancellor doesn't seem to be greatly taken with the Big Society idea, the broad generalities of which swamped the retail offer he wanted last year's Conservative manifesto to be.  And he isn't really a localist: new tax-raising powers for local councils, without which the localist project can't be complete and which Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan were therefore recently pushing again, are anathema to the Treasury.  A lot may depend on whether Hilton's original vision for the Open Public Services White Paper - of groups of public sector workers and others taking control of the services they provide - is realised.  Area of tension.
  • Health.  Hilton backed Lansley's original plans, believing that the NHS needs modernisation to raise standards and control costs.  Osborne saw them as a political risk too far.  Been there, done that, serious disagreement, Osborne won.

I understand that it's infuriating to see one's reform ideals compromised, especially in the area of public service change, which matters to Hilton very much.  However, I've listed the main areas of Government reform, and count serious disagreement between Osborne and Hilton on two items out of six, maximum.

I think that many people who work in a team would live with agreement on four out of six common aims - and, remember, that total may be higher - especially when two of the main areas for reform are as big as health and welfare.  So why would Hilton leave?

Only, I suspect, if he finds the pace at which Whitehall works too grinding, the sweep of EU laws and rules too frustrating, the compromises of politics too confining.


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