Rishi Saha to quit Downing Street for Hill & Knowlton role

Downing Street's head of digital communications Rishi Saha is to join Hill & Knowlton as speculation mounts that influential director of strategy Steve Hilton is also close to quitting Number Ten.

Rishi Saha: joining Hill & Knowlton
Rishi Saha: joining Hill & Knowlton

Saha, previously head of new media at Conservative Party HQ, is to leave his post after less than a year in Downing Street. He will become regional director for Hill & Knowlton across Australia, the Middle East, Africa, and South and Central Asia and will relocate to Dubai for the new role.

The news comes as rumours circulate in Westminster about the possible departure of Hilton, who is said to be dismayed at the Government’s retreat over the NHS. A report in The Times today suggested that Hilton could walk out within six months because he is ‘disillusioned with the realities of governing from Downing Street’.

Saha’s new role was confirmed by Hill & Knowlton this morning. In a statement, Saha said that ‘the challenge of serving the complex strategic needs of those clients across multiple territories is a tremendous one, and one I greatly look forward to taking on’. However a spokeswoman for Hill & Knowlton was unable to disclose the agency’s clients in Dubai, where Saha will be based.

PRWeek understands that Saha was hired to his civil service post last year on a one-year fixed term contract. Downing Street insiders suggested he would have had to ‘jump through some hoops’ to make the position permanent.

But other factors may also have prompted Saha’s departure. In November 2010, The Daily Mail described the publicity-shy Saha as ‘one of a growing number of members of the Camerons’ inner circle to be parachuted into plum jobs at Downing Street on the public payroll’.

Saha is understood to have been embarrassed by press coverage of his appointment, which only came to light after controversy over the appointment of Andrew Parsons as Prime Minister David Cameron’s ‘vanity photographer’.

News of his departure also comes within weeks of the appointment of Mike Bracken, director of digital development at the Guardian, as the new executive director of digital at the Cabinet Office.

From 5 July, Bracken will be responsible for extending the number of public services available online as well as improving all of the government’s online activities. Based in the Cabinet Office, the role was created following digital champion Martha Lane Fox's review of the Directgov portal.

One well-placed source suggested that the creation of this new role and the hire of Bracken had contributed to Saha’s decision to quit. ‘I think that put his nose out of joint,’ said the source, adding that Saha would be missed by Downing Street and Cameron.

Downing Street sources suggested that Hilton, the shaven-headed adviser credited with decontaminating the Tory brand, would also quit Downing Street if he did not get his way in battles with Chancellor George Osborne and recently appointed comms advisers Craig Oliver and Andrew Cooper. One insider told PRWeek: ‘He’s a volatile creature and if things go really bad then he’ll take his bat home - there’s always that risk with Steve.’

But the source added:  ‘We’re not at that stage. Steve is Cameron’s closest friend and he has as much energy and as many ideas now as he did when he came in.’

Meanwhile, Downing Street today moved to flatly deny rumours that Hilton is set to quit.  ‘Nope’, was the response given by a spokesman when asked by lobby journalists.

However the denial has failed to dampen the speculation. Telegraph assistant comment editor Daniel Knowles blogged today: ‘If Steve Hilton goes… we could end up stuck with a Government led by people without any ideas beyond short-term political-pragmatism, just hoping to get through the next election.’

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