The press has been quick to point the blame at coalition compromises for Hilton’s exit. The Mail online yesterday blamed ‘a stand-up’ row between Hilton and Cameron over the coalition’s ‘lack of direction’.
Nick Williams, head of public affairs, Fleishman-Hillard, agreed: ‘It would appear that Steve Hilton finally became tired of the constant battles with the Liberal Democrats and specifically Vince Cable, where Hilton’s desire to significantly reduce red tape on business was seen to be frequently opposed by Cable.’
Williams said Hilton’s departure was a ‘massive blow’ for Cameron and that things could only get worse for the Prime Minister after losing ‘virtually all of the major figures that he brought into Downing Street’.
He said: ‘Cameron needs to learn from Tony Blair’s days and ensure that he is surrounded by some big hitters. He needs to spend time rebuilding his team, otherwise civil servants will step in and Cameron’s ability to develop new and creative ideas will be constrained significantly.’
Hilton’s exit marks the fourth aide to leave Cameron’s side in less than a year.
The list includes Andy Coulson, who quit during the phone hacking revelations; Tim Chatwin, the former head of strategic communications who joined Google; and James O'Shaughnessy, who joined lobbying firm Portland.
Hilton is taking a year of unpaid leave to move to California and spend time with his wife and children. He says he will return before the next election.
Pagefield partner Simon Redfern also put coalition compromises at the heart of Hilton’s decision, although he added California would be the setting for Hilton to ‘recharge his batteries after banging his head against the inside of the door at Number 10 for two years’.
He said: ‘The relentless pressure to change things is contained by office. It’s very hard to get anything done in Government and the speed at which this coalition is prepared to compromise and reverse will have been painful to Hilton.’
Jo-ann Robertson, Ketchum Pleon MD of public affairs and corporate comms, said there was a need for Hilton’s 'blue sky thinking' but that on its own it could lead to ‘pandemonium in the policy process and an overall lack of direction’.
She said: ‘At this stage in the political cycle the Prime Minister needs someone who can navigate the increasingly tricky factions in the Conservative Party, who can negotiate better with the Liberals in the coalition, and who can bring the right balance of creativity to policy making that has a practical impact.’
Alex Deane, head of public affairs at Weber Shandwick, suggested Hilton was irreplaceable for Cameron and that Hilton's absence would only be temporary.
Deane said: ‘It's difficult to contemplate anyone replacing him – not only because of his talent, but also because of the deep trust the Prime Minister had and has in him.
‘I may be wrong, and a year's a desperately long time in politics, but my instinct is that Cameron will want him to return at the end of the year and won't make a direct replacement or have someone working in quite the same job in his absence.’