Sunday 11 April 2010

Sunday papers: Hilton advised Cameron to ditch Osborne

There do not, at first glance, seem to be many earth shattering revelations in the first Sunday newspapers of the campaign, as the party leaders play a pretty straight bat in interviews previewing the manifestoes and first leaders' debate.

Gordon Brown spars with the Sunday Times over their attempts to generate something newsworthy by asking what he calls "typical Sunday Times questions": "“You will be surprised by the pro-business nature of the manifesto, the pro-enterprise nature of the manifesto and pro-industry nature of the manifesto", he tells them. There was a longer and more personal Gordon Brown interview with Ginny Dougary in the Saturday Times magazine.

The Sunday Telegraph has a big Cameron interview, which they bill as rejecting the Thatcher legacy and anointing Boris (now favourite to be next Tory leader) as "his natural heir". The text of the interview shows both claims involve a bit of a stretch.

"Look, I think very important things happened in the 1980s. Very important things were done. And yes of course, some of them, for instance the arguments over deploying cruise missiles and facing down the Soviets, over trade union reform, some of those things were divisive.

"Margaret Thatcher was on the right side of the argument. Should we try today in 2010, and into the future, in doing difficult things like cutting the deficit, should we try and take the whole country with us? Yes. Should we try and show we are genuinely all in this together? Yes."

So the interview rather continues what the "masterclass in political ambiguity" in which Cameron plays some ProgCon mood music yet always remains careful to never make any substantive criticism of the core arguments of Thatcherism or Thatcher's record as Prime Minister.

Nick Clegg talks to The Observer about liberalism. Of course, Clegg should be challenging claims that a hung Parliament will lead to financial meltdown as undemocratic. I am not convinced that offering warnings of "Greek-style unrest" (speculation about a 'summer of unrest' is a Sunday newspaper staple) if there is a small majority for one party is the best way to do that.

So perhaps the most interesting Sunday feature is Anne McElvoy's Sunday Times magazine feature on Steve Hilton, the architect of the Cameron project who remains a little known public figure, despite now being immortalised in the Stewart Pearson ubermoderniser in the Thick of It (and in Next Left's own gobbledegook award). “If Cameron could take just one call on a key decision, Steve’s is the one he’d take" says one pro-Hilton insider while "Many MPs and shadow ministers think that Hilton has too much power, while being rather vague about what he does".

It is an insider personality piece, but the issue at stake is also in part the quest for the elusive content of Cameronism. However, McElvoy's piece does not discuss at all what is probably the central strategic tension in the war for Cameron's era: the rather different focus of Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson in defining what the message and public presentation of what the Cameron project is.

Instead, it highlights Hilton's relationship with George Osborne:

There are three of them in this marriage. Osborne is less emotionally close to Cameron but is highly valued as a political brain and was the first person Cameron appointed to a senior job. Hilton had doubts about Osborne occupying the high-profile role of shadow chancellor. Two years ago, he even suggested replacing him with Phil Hammond, the lugubrious but business-literate Treasury spokesman. Hilton doubted whether the combination of two young figures would be convincing to the public. His boss refused to get rid of Osborne, and Hilton later admitted that he had been wrong. But the incident soured the mood between the two chief lieutenants, who now have very separate social lives and spheres of influence.

However that, on content, the "uber-modernising" Hilton is a marriage tax break enthusiast while the more economically right-wing Osborne is sceptical about the potentially illiberal message demonstrate cross-currents about what the ProgCon project is about.

Hilton may also be lightly renarrativising his own political history. McElvoy writes:

“I was always a Conservative,” he once told me, “but in my twenties, practically all my friends were Labour or Greens. I got used to seeing things from a different perspective. I knew exactly how other people saw the Tory party, which is not how it saw itself.”

Just about every national newspaper has reported that Hilton claimed to have voted Green in 2001.

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