Steve Hilton: The barefoot revolutionary

Steve Hilton made a habit out of upsetting Tory grandees with his eccentric behaviour. But will David Cameron miss his ideas man?

The team behind The Thick Of It must be livid, says The Guardian. Filming for the next series of the political comedy is starting and was widely thought to include a major character based on Number Ten's "ideas guru" Steve Hilton. Time for a rewrite. The brains behind the Big Society is off to California, where his wife Rachel is a senior Google executive. Officially on a year's sabbatical, he'll be a visiting professor at Stanford.

David Cameron may mourn the departure of his closest friend in politics, but many will cheer the "pint-sized Rasputin's" exit and not just Tory grandees, who nicknamed him "Gollum" because of his "eccentric behaviour", says The Daily Telegraph.

The "barefoot revolutionary" irritated many: last year, he refused to wear shoes when hosting a Downing Street reception. Hilton's impatience antagonised civil service mandarins and Lib Dem coalition partners, whom he opposed on everything from business regulation to Europe.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

"Steve Hilton is still widely misrepresented as a shaven-haired hippy Lefty because of his penchant for casual attire and occasional focus on loopy ideas," says Iain Martin in The Daily Telegraph. "But where the government has been most radical in education and welfare, he has been relentless in driving on the cause of reform."

The value to Cameron of this "unconventional child of Hungarian immigrants was huge", says Martin Ivens in The Sunday Times. Born in 1969, Hilton was a scholarship boy at Christ's Hospital and studied PPE at Oxford.

He met Cameron when he was seconded from Saatchi & Saatchi to work on John Major's 1992 election and saw his potential as a future leader, says The Independent on Sunday. Others recognised Hilton's talents. "No one reminds me as much of me when young as Steve," Maurice Saatchi once observed.

Hilton set up a consultancy, Good Business (an early champion of corporate social responsibility), winning McDonald's and Coca-Cola. But his talent for rebranding shone in 2005 when Cameron became party leader. He decontaminated the "nasty party", presenting the Old Etonian as middle-class "Dave", who hugged hoodies to demonstrate the party's new "green, socially liberal and silicon savvy" credentials.

The official line is that he will return, says The Daily Telegraph, but friends think it unlikely. Hilton is frustrated with central government's constrictions, and is more interested in becoming mayor of Brighton or London. He may also have decided it's time that his wife's career came first, says Michael White in The Guardian. "The very thought is enough to get older Tory MPs spluttering into their gin but it's probably a factor and a very zeitgeisty one. Very Steve Hilton."

How much will Hilton's departure hurt Cameron?

Few of the public have heard of Steve Hilton. So does his exit matter? It certainly does, says The Sunday Times. "Advisers advise, ministers decide," Margaret Thatcher famously said. But the 1989 resignation of her key adviser, Sir Alan Walters, was "the beginning of the end of her premiership" and "Tony Blair was never the same, for better or worse, after Alistair Campbell left Downing Street in 2003".

That's not to say that David Cameron is on his last legs, but the departure of Hilton described by one ally as "punk anti-establishment" leaves the government in danger of "political drift". Among the PM's cautious inner-circle, "Steve alone will bang his fist on the table and say why aren't we being more radical'"?

Still, civil servants and some ministers will be "glad to have a break" from his "unstoppable" stream of ideas "many of them politically suicidal", says George Parker in the FT. Stories that he advocated cloudbursting technology to give Britain more sunshine are apocryphal. But his drive to eliminate red-tape led to proposals to scrap maternity leave and suspend consumer rights. He also advocated privatising the M25.

Hilton's Big Society never took off with voters, but his successes are underrated, says Michael White in The Guardian. He was a master at putting fashionable theories Richard Thaler's "Nudge" is one into a practical context. "Blue-skies thinkers are welcome in opposition, and in the bold early days of any government," says Jackie Ashley in The Guardian.

But Hilton's ideas were frustrated by "the politics of coalition and the anaesthetic effect of civil service advice" not to mention austerity. The prime minister is unlikely to lose touch with Hilton and his wife, Rachel Whetstone, on a personal level: they were godparents to his eldest son, Ivan. But, within government, "Cameron has lost the only person really close to him acknowledged to be an instinctive outsider".