Steve Hilton: ‘I’m rich, but I understand the frustrations people have’

David Camerons former blue-sky thinker says the rise of populism is due to the super-richs inability to put themselves in the shoes of those less well off before accepting a free cab ride and becoming lost for words about his own wealth

Steve Hiltons office looks so typically San-Fran tech-startup that it could be the work of a situate decorator. Surfaces are matt white, the centrepiece is the kitchen, and there are various bins for different types of recycling. The only thing missing is Hilton.

He cant call to say hes operating 45 minutes late, because he doesnt own a smartphone. The CEO of Crowdpac trenched his five years ago. This presents another problem when he arrives, because he has to leave again in 15 minutes, having promised to attend an exhibition at his sons school. Would I mind coming too? We could do the interview in the back of an Uber?

Sure, I say, assuming hell call one. Doesnt he have an Uber account? He looks at me, bemused. I dont have a phone. So I call an Uber on my account, and we set off south together to Silicon Valley. We are an hours drive from the school, and a very long way from Downing Street.

In his old life, Hilton was David Camerons close friend, strategy director and blue-sky intellectual, godfather to his eldest son, Ivan, and so close that Michael Gove once observed: Its impossible to know where Steve objectives and David begins. Rumoured to have voted Green in 2005, he was the funky, liberal architect of Camerons detoxification programme, the acceptable face of the new Tories who dreamed up the Big Society and became famous for arriving at work barefoot in cycling shorts.

He also became famous for falling out with almost everyone in Whitehall, and in 2012 left for California and a new life with his wife, Rachel Whetstone, abruptly very much the second half of the power couple: Whetstone was then Googles director of communications and later moved to Uber; but she abruptly quit her job there this week. Hilton tells an illuminating story about his wife demonstrating an early prototype of Googles voice activation software. She spoke into a phone: OK Google, who is Steve Hilton? It replied: Steve Hilton is married to Rachel Whetstone.

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Hilton with George Osborne and David Cameron in 2015. The sever of relations since has been their choice. I dont should be considered it. Photograph: Dafydd Jones/ Rex Shutterstock

But last year he resurfaced on the British political scene in the referendum campaign, arguing passionately for Brexit, and claiming that, were Cameron a backbencher, he would be supporting leave, too. Relations between the pair were reportedly strained to breaking point, though Hilton has up to now maintained that they remained friends. He raised eyebrows even further by coming out as a Trump supporter and now he has joined Fox News, with a prove called The Next Revolution, which will explore the rise of populism in a weekly primetime Sunday night slot.

Now 47, Hilton has lost none of his restless, bouncy energy, and talks flat-out for our whole journey. I want to know what a nice, green liberal is doing promoting Trump on Fox, but my questions seem to ten-strike him as typical of the lefts lamentably lumpen way of looking at the world. Ive got Fox News all wrong, he says. Its the only place where there is actual political debate going on in America. When I ask if he didnt wince to ensure veteran Fox presenter Bill OReilly mocking the haircut of congresswoman Maxine Waters( he called it a James Brown wig ), a repressed smile dances round his mouth. I just think people make jokes, say things, you know. What Trump said about grabbing girls by the pussy was disgusting, yes. But lets be honest, its not just Donald Trump that treats women with disrespect and sexualises them.

Had Bernie Sanders been the Democratic nominee, Hilton probably would have supported him. Hilton says he is not really a conservative or a liberal: Its hard to pin me down because Im a bit of Bernie Sanders, a bit of Rand Paul, bit of John Kasich. Hes pro-Trump simply because he was the candidate most likely to shake things up. What Hilton really is, he has realised, is a populist.

I only really heard of it as a political notion here in the campaign last year. I wont say ld literally never heard the word, but it definitely wasnt part of any reasoning. Now he believes his 2015 volume, More Human, was in fact a populist manifesto, and Crowdpac, his political crowdfunding tech company, a vehicle for promoting it. Populism may have most negative connotations than positive ones, but he intends to change all that through his Fox show. What I would love it to be is presenting the positive version of populism, which is what Ive always believed in, and thats been consistent.

Does his enthusiasm for populism extend as far as hoping for a Marine Le Pen victory in France? He wont say, because I merely dont know enough about it, but he will say that hes fed up with liberals accusing legislators like her of racism.

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The thing that has always motivated me is that sense of unfairness Hilton with Cameron at No 10. Photograph: Rex Shutterstock

Last year, post-Brexit, Hilton conveyed discouragement at the anti-immigrant mood that speedily spread, but seems impatient now when I suggest that ugliness, even if unintended, is the all-but-inevitable outcome of populist rhetoric. I dont think its inevitable at all. I just think that we need massive revolutionary change in the way that we do things, and its not enough to say that we cant even talking here the necessity of that because it might have[ ugly outcomes ]. The rise of populism, he says firmly, has nothing to do with values and everything to do with the collapse of economic security.

The median US household income is lower today than in 1999. Half of the country are on lower incomes, and the poorer you are, the worse it is, and the other half has gone up. Youve had such a catastrophic consequence on peoples incomes and economic security from the agenda items of unconstrained globalisation and all the things that a, kind of, Davos mob believe in. The impact of that on real peoples lives thats ugly. And what youve got is a cry for the pain of people whose lives for decades have been really shit. The thing that has always motivated me is that sense of unfairness.

More than anything, what upsets Hilton is the staggering lack of empathy of the rich person for the lives of most people. Im rich, but I understand the frustration that people have. Does he guess the rich people around him dont get onto? They really, really dont.

He and Cameron last spoke in December 2015. At the infamous Sexy Fish party? Yes, I think that would have been the last time. Did lobbying for Uber, as has been alleged, take place at that party? He cites a long-standing pact with his wife never to discuss one another undertakings, so cant say anything. But wasnt the alleged cosy chumocracy exactly the sort of thing Hilton rails against? Yes, and, you know, in many ways it feels frustrating that I cant get into that. But I think its a perfectly fair point, yes. I see that. But Im already doing more than I said I would in terms of talking about it.

He is scathing about George Osborne becoming Evening Standard editor while remaining an MP. I think it appears entitled. I guess in the UK, perhaps, to a certain extent, constituents have got used to the idea that a lot of their MPs only dont really give a shit about them, and theyre off in London doing their stuff. It is, he says, the most difficult instance of revolving-door syndrome, and if he were allowed to donate he would love to contribute to an #OsborneMustGo campaign someone has launched on Crowdpac.

Does he think he has been disloyal to his former friends? Well , not from my point of view. The severing of relations is their choice. I dont should be considered it. Hilton knew Cameron would be really cross about him campaigning for leave, but didnt realise it would cost him their friendship. And I still dont think it needs to. Hilton was shocked when he resigned, and sent his old friend an email telling him he didnt think hed had to, but Cameron never replied.

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Hilton with Boris Johnson. He knew supporting the Brexit leave campaign would stimulate Cameron actually cross. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/ PA

We pull up at the school, deep in Silicon Valley. Hes excited to show me round his sons classrooms; the school is experimental. It is also , nonetheless, private and highly exclusive. The cost of our journey here is never mentioned, in the way that one wouldnt think to mention paying someone back for a bus fare. Isnt Hilton himself a member of the very wealthy coastal elites he chastises?

Well, technically, yes. But thats my point about empathy. Just because youre part of it doesnt mean you cant empathise or understand life outside of it, you know. That I find genuinely surprising, that so many people just havent been successful at do that.

It has been a tour de force of fluent certainties, righteous passion and implacable self-belief; Hiltons self-image as a political pirate, a free-thinking radical on the side of the little guy, is impregnable. And then I ask one simple question, and the whole story he tells about himself unravels. Do he and his family deserve their wealth? He stares at me in surprise.

Er I think we definitely both run really hard. Sure, but do they deserve their level of wealth? Well such a good question. Im just trying to think. He falls silent for 11 seconds, searching his mind for an answer that doesnt undermine everything hes been saying.

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Hiltons wife, Rachel Whetstone, who quit her job at Uber this week. Photograph: Silverhub/ Rex/ Shutterstock

I guess, funnily enough, this is what I always felt about the discussion about inequality. The problem that needs to be addressed is people not having that security, only fretting so much, and therefore you cant worry about people earnings at the top.

He must surely see that at the heart of inequality and what attains it so toxic is the sense people arent getting what they deserve, at either end of the pay scale? Yes. So can he tell the poor he cares about that he deserves what hes get?

I think thats not because in the end, its not a moral I think thats what all this conversation thats happening around about thats why thats the whole He becomes unquotably inarticulate. I just dont believe it builds sense to try to regulate pay, I simply dont. But do they deserve their wealth? I dont even think thats the right way to think about it.

Does he not realise that its how the person who cleans his toilet thinks about it and every person who has worked hard, played by the rules, and still cant feed their family? Isnt that precisely whats fuelling populism? He guesses again.

A lot of people asked how it is that the person who represents that populist thing in America happens to be this billionaire, right? But its that sense of: is it a fair and legitimate and sensible route to make money? So when they look at Trump they say, OK, well, he constructed houses. Right, I get that, thats a thing. And he was on Tv and he did this show that lots of people enjoyed watching. Thats fair enough. Thats stuff that I can understand. Whereas with Mitt Romneys wealth, its all from fiscal wheeler-dealing that I dont really understand.

Would they understand what Hilton and his wife do? He looks increasingly flustered. I think that they understand I simply dont know. I think that it depends on I say I think theyd look at the job titles of most Silicon Valley millionaires and think that these guys didnt risk the roof over their head to build industries; they just got corporate undertakings that paid them in stock and built them super-rich. Yes, yes, he nods. I get that, but how are you going to actually do anything about that? In the end, you come back to, well, theres a market and thats how it works.

It seems a remarkable coincidence that the sole pillar of our economic system this revolutionary blue-sky intellectual wont challenge is the one that has stimulated his family super-rich. He adds: The argument for markets is competitive markets, but this is a tricky defense to mount in Silicon Valley, I suggest, when the economics of the internet are notorious for creating monopolies Google, Amazon and so on. I agree, entirely, yes.

So, I try once more: can he say that he and his family deserve their wealth? I think that were maybe overstating the degree to which were in that economic category. Were genuinely not.

Hilton lives in the second more expensive zip code in America, in a house that expense $20.5 m. Whetstone is thought to have earned in excess of $50 m at Google. Hes quite right, theres an empathy problem amongst the rich. Im merely astounded he thinks hes miraculously unafflicted by it.

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