Scottish Daily Mail
You won’t have heard of Fiona Hill. But this no-nonsense Glasgow girl is the REAL power behind the PM’s throne (even down to her choice of shoe...)
ON a day of frenetic comings and goings in Downing Street, it would have been easy to miss the arrival of the petite Scot in snakeskin kitten heels. Many will not have spotted the sly smile playing on her lips either.
Fiona Hill certainly had reasons to be cheerful. It was her 43rd birthday and one of her least favourite figures in politics, David Cameron’s right-hand man, had just left Number 10 for good.
Now she was on her way in – as Theresa May’s right-hand woman. Things had turned out not so badly for the Glasgowborn former journalist who was forced to resign from Mrs May’s Home Office team two years ago after stoking a row between her boss and Michael Gove.
Here she was, the day after Mrs May became Prime Minister, arriving at Downing Street to learn that her role in the new set-up would be an even loftier one than that occupied by her former nemesis, Mr Cameron’s director of communications Craig Oliver.
Miss Hill is now joint chief of staff for the PM, a role she shares with another May loyalist, Nick Timothy. ‘Basically,’ said one Westminster source,’ they are running the place.’
No mere spin doctors, together they are at the heart of Mrs May’s regime, transforming it from a ‘sofa-government’ of oldEtonians into a sleek, gimmick-free operation. Oh, and if the Prime Minister were ever stuck for what to wear, Miss Hill would be the ideal sounding board. She is, after all, a former fashion writer who spent years ‘dressing’ her boss at the Home Office.
Striding into Downing Street on that first full day of Mrs May’s premiership, Miss Hill may well have reflected that previous visits there could be unhappy affairs.
One tale of her time at the Home Office has her repeatedly fobbing off orders from Number 10 to report to Mr Cameron’s communications chief for a dressing down. Seeing the Downing Street switchboard’s number show up on her phone again, she is said to have answered: ‘Sorry, Craig, I’m really busy.’ Whereupon a voice on the line said: ‘Get… here… now!’ ‘Right away, Prime Minister,’ she replied. Not that Miss Hill is averse to meting out admonitions. Those who have worked with her say her tongue can be as ferocious as her intellect. ‘Brilliant but terrifying’ is the consensus. And, when her boss is attacked, she switches to ‘kill mode’.
How, then, did a working-class girl who began life in the East End of Glasgow rise to become one of the most powerful women in the country; ‘joined at the hip’, according to some, with Mrs May?
In fact her route into the upper echelons of unelected politics was remarkably similar to that of her former foe Mr Oliver, who is the son of former Central Scotland and Grampian Police chief constable Dr Ian Oliver. Both she and Mr Oliver attended Scottish schools before launching careers as television journalists – he at ITN and later the BBC, she at Sky.
But neither, it seems, rated the other as special advisers to their respective ministerial bosses. Westminster sources suggest he had her card marked from the start. Friends of Miss Hill, meanwhile, say she thought he was an idiot.
‘There is a particular problem between Fiona and Craig,’ said one source at the height of their tensions in 2014. ‘There have been explosions in the past and there have been disagreements over strategy.’
If neither Mr Oliver nor his boss were particular fans, there are plenty who sing the praises of a formidable operator.
A friend said: ‘She’s very sharp and fiercely loyal. She’s plainspoken and, if you like, noticeably Glaswegian. She’s made no attempt to disguise that, now or ever.’
Meanwhile a former colleague at Sky News told the Mail: ‘Fiona was a huge asset in the newsroom. She worked on the newsdesk primarily and her journalism was razor sharp. She had a real sense for a story and the mechanics of television news. It’s down to logistics as much as anything else and it all came naturally to Fiona.
‘She is very grounded with a cracking wit, which endeared her to everyone. In moments of high stress, she was the cool head you needed. I suppose that will come in handy.’
Her toughness, no doubt, will prove invaluable too. Having grown up first in Glasgow’s Dennistoun, then a few miles west in Linwood and later in Port Glasgow, Renfrewshire, Miss Hill spent her early days in journalism as the lone female sports reporter on the Daily Record, often assigned to the most unglamorous of football matches. Then, during a spell at The Scotsman, she laid the groundwork for the role she would play years later as the Home Secretary’s wardrobe consultant.
‘Invested in kitten heels?’ she asked readers in 1999. ‘Then you are one of the women leading the fight against fashion’s biggest enemy: understatement.’
She went on: ‘Now is the time to declare less is no longer more.’
Impossible, surely. But it is as if her future boss were lapping up every word.
From The Scotsman, Miss Hill moved into television, eventually becoming a senior member of the newsdesk at Sky before moving into the orbit of senior Tories in David Cameron’s then shadow cabinet.
She worked first in the Tory press office for shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley before heading to the British Chambers of Commerce for a year. She was soon back in the Conservative fold, as press secretary to shadow home secretary Chris Grayling, in time for the 2010 General Election.
But only after the election, when David Cameron sent Mrs May to the Home Office, did chemistry really happen.
One Westminster insider said: ‘Theresa May, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill being thrown together at the Home Office was one of these great accidents of fate. You might argue none of this would have happened if any one of the three was missing. They became inseparable and fiercely loyal to one another.’
In Fiona Hill, the Home Secretary found a sharp political operator as well as loyal friend, confidante and fashion adviser. In Mrs May, the Scot found a ‘lioness’ – a serious political beast with the potential to go all the way to Number 10.
It was hardly plain sailing. Among the first obstacles was the ‘catgate’ row of 2011, where the Home Secretary told the Conservative Party conference of ‘the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat’.
Feeling the heat from Mrs May’s attack on the Human Rights Act, then justice secretary Ken Clarke mocked her for making a ‘parody’ of a court judgment and calling her examples ‘laughable’ and ‘childlike’. Incensed at the criticism of her boss, Miss Hill let fly. According
‘If anyone attacks Mrs May, she’s set to kill mode’
to one report, she emailed one of Mr Clarke’s advisers, telling him: ‘If you don’t shut your man up, you’re out of a job at the next reshuffle.’
But it was an altogether messier fall-out with an arguably more dangerous member of the Government that really shook the Home Office to its foundations and, ultimately, cost Miss Hill her job.
Recently divorced, she had begun a relationship with former MI6 spy Charles Farr, at the time director of the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism in the Home Office. In 2014, Education Secretary Michael Gove had singled out Mr Farr for criticism during a private lunch with executives from The Times, which published his comments anonymously. The allegation was that the ex-MI6 man had failed to ‘drain the swamp’ of UK extremism. Miss Hill was furious at what she considered an unjustified attack not just on Mr Farr but also on Mrs May. In retaliation, she took it upon herself to publish on the Home Office website a letter from the Home Secretary to Mr Gove which accused him of failing to act on warnings about an alleged Islamic plot to infiltrate Birmingham schools. It was open interdepartmental warfare – and when the BBC’s Nick Robinson picked up the story he told Radio 4 that a ‘complicating factor’ in the background was the relationship between Miss Hill and Mr Farr.
It certainly appeared to complicate matters. An excoriating attack by the Department for Education on Home Office civil servant Mr Farr was met with return fire from his lover, the spin doctor for the Home Office.
But was that really the situation – or had someone put Mr Robinson up to making mischievous mention of the affair to undermine Miss Hill? A friend said: ‘Mr Farr wasn’t the reason she went after Gove that night. If anybody attacks Theresa May, she’s set to kill mode.’
For her part, Miss Hill was clear her intervention was sparked only by the implied criticism of her boss. But, such was the bad blood between her and senior figures at Downing Street, many wondered if it was Mr Oliver who had tipped the BBC man off about the romance. All concerned denied everything, but in the end it did not matter. Miss Hill’s decision to put a confidential letter on the Home Office website proved fatal.
One Conservative MP said at the time: ‘It was a breach of just about every ministerial and civil service guideline. She should have been sacked on the spot by the Home Secretary. When Theresa failed to do that, the Prime Minister should have insisted.’
Instead, anxious to avoid a showdown with Mrs May, Mr Cameron called in Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood to investigate. He discovered that, not only had Miss Hill published her boss’s letter to Mr Gove, she had also briefed against the Department for Education, telling one newspaper: ‘Lord knows what more they have overlooked on the subject of the protection of kids in state schools. It scares me.’ And so Miss Hill had to go – a devastating blow for Mrs May. It was, say well-placed Government sources, largely down to her trusted special adviser that the Home Secretary had come to be portrayed as Britain’s Angela Merkel and, against expectations, emerged as one of the more stylish figures at Westminster.
Few doubt that Miss Hill’s demise was secretly welcomed by some in government. It is no secret her acidic approach to civil servants who did not please her left many feeling nervous. There were those who believed she showed too little respect for Downing Street.
It was noted that Miss Hill was too frequently ‘in shot’ in newspapers – a no-no among special advis- ers who, it is said, have to buy cakes for their colleagues in penance.
Most damagingly, she had allowed herself to become the story, both through her affair and the ferocity of her defence of her boss.
Leaving the Home Office for PR firm Lexington Communications, Miss Hill watched from the sidelines as the Conservatives returned to government last year – this time with an overall majority – and, this year, as the Brexit vote sank David Cameron’s premiership.
Then, weeks ago, as Mrs May launched her bid for Number 10, she returned to work for her former boss on secondment. The pieces could hardly have fallen into place more perfectly thereafter.
Mr Oliver is gone (albeit with a pay-off of £70,000 and a reasonable expectation of a knighthood or peerage in David Cameron’s resignation honours). Michael Gove is relegated – a humiliated man – to the back benches, his own challenge for the top job a nonstarter after his betrayal of Boris Johnson. Ken Clarke is a fading force in the party.
Meanwhile, resplendent in the kitten heels Miss Hill urged her to wear and holding the keys to Number 10, is her own ‘lioness’ Mrs May. Behind the sly smile of the prime ministerial sidekick sashaying into Downing Street, to be sure, lies a measure of satisfaction.