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Can Steve Hilton be tempted back to Government? It doesn't sound promising…

By Peter Hoskin
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Even from America, Steve Hilton makes waves that lap at our shores. The Sunday Times reports (£) on a seminar that David Cameron’s policy-chief-on-sabbatical recently gave to students at Stanford University — and, boy, does it contain some spicy quotes about government and its frustrations. Mr Hilton complained that, in his experience:

“Very often you’ll wake up in the morning and hear on the radio or the news or see something in the newspapers about something the government is doing. And you think, well, hang on a second — it’s not just that we didn’t know it was happening, but we don’t even agree with it! The government can be doing things ... and we don’t agree with it? How can that be?”

And he went on to explain how “the bureaucracy masters the politicians”, with a particular emphasis on paperwork. By Mr Hilton’s calculations, about 40 per cent of the Government’s to-do tray is filled with directives from the EU. Another 30 per cent is related to “random things… which were not anything to do with the Coalition Agreement”. And that means that:

“…only 30% of what the government is doing is actually delivering what we’re supposed to be doing. It just shows you the scale of what you’re up against… When I found that out, that was pretty horrific.”

In truth, none of this should come as a shock. We knew about Mr Hilton’s disgruntlement with the clunking machinery of British government even before he departed from No.10, and more so afterwards. And it was, I believe, Tim who first revealed that 40/30/30 split in a blog-post for this site.

But it’s still striking to hear Mr Hilton vent these frustrations in public — and in such blunt terms, too. Indeed, if you were to play armchair psychologist, you might guess that these remain raw, itchy memories for the man. It does not sound as though he’s eager to return to Downing Street any time soon.

Of course, the official line is that Mr Hilton is just on a break from his job, and hasn’t actually quit permanently. But the truth is that few, if any, people in Westminster are certain about his future intentions. The possibility that he may never settle back into his former role is a very real one, and it ought to worry the Conservative Party. As the Sunday Times says in its leader column (£) today, the Government needs energetic, radical thinkers such as him.

So, what might draw him back? Harder, better, faster and stronger reform of the civil service, of the sort that Francis Maude now appears to be delivering, is surely one thing. Repatriation of powers from Europe, or at least the prospect of repatriation, might also help. Again, none of this is really a surprise.

But there are other problems that may need dealing with. In an excellent post over at his blog, Damian McBride — yes, he of Team Brown fame and shame — suggests that Mr Hilton’s complaints may have much to do with failings in No.10’s political operation. I won’t spoil his full argument here, suffice to say that it involves the question, “What on earth has happened to the No.10 grid system?” It seems that a lot will need fixing if Mr Hilton is ever to make happy, fulltime return to government.


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