First rule of Twitter: if you don’t use it, you can’t understand it. Nor should you try to: it is a kind of digital crack cocaine for a tiny minority addicted to gossip. In the old days, political gossip had to be exchanged in bars, corridors and (famously) urinals of the Commons. Twitter delivers these fixes straight to the addicts’ mobile telephones. The good news is that anyone can open a Twitter account under an assumed name, and have a little fun with our elected representatives — if you know, or can guess, how their minds work. Last year, I had a go, and became, for a while, a Westminster phenomenon.
By then, certain political types were taking advantage of Twitter’s immediacy, reach and power. There was much fun to be had at a time when the government was entering a phase of gimmicky announcements, lazy U-turns, vacillation and briefing against each other. Twitter itself was loftily dismissed by Mr Cameron during the election (‘too many tweets make a twat,’ he said) but I understand he will make (yes) a U-turn on this at party conference and announce he has signed up. You only have 140 characters for each message, but this is enough to fan flames, steal a march and cause turmoil, and it was all ripe to be sent up on Twitter.
I chose an identity that would provoke attention and give me a chance of attracting influential followers. The synthetic try-hard mystique of Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister’s best friend and chief strategist, was the ideal meat for my proposed barbecue. Hilton was prone to cruising round No. 10 in shorts and bare feet, as a rather puerile display of rank. He sat at his desk wearing T-shirts saying ‘pillage before plunder’. His abject lack of manners and propensity for hissy fits were no secret. His daft and hubristic whims were indulged without proper scrutiny or examination (which partly explains the Conservatives’ failure to win the last election).
I called myself SteveHiltonGuru and set some strict rules to protect my anonymity (and my job). When I revealed confidential information, I’d make sure that at least a few other people knew about it so nothing could be traced back to me. My material would be accurate enough to start a mole hunt. It’s easy to grab the attention of any Twitter addicts in Westminster: if you type in their name (say @louisemensch) then whatever you write appears in their inbox. If this amuses them, they will ‘retweet’ it, so that all of their thousands of readers see it. If they like it, they’ll sign up to your feed. -Fairly soon, I was approaching 10,000 followers.
Everyone was convinced I was a mole. Some thought that the volatile Hilton was doing it himself: he didn’t speak to many people, but my tweets conformed closely to everyone’s image of him. His world was one of green tea, chillaxing, edgy music, wigwams and California dreaming. I used a mixture of guesswork and the occasional dose of serious, genuine intel. This conspired to raise suspicions of my being an insider. The more accurate the tweet or indeed the guess, the more attention and paranoia it inspired — and the more retweets, followers and mentions on Twitter. It was causing delicious mayhem.
My ruse worked precisely because -British politics has become such a close-knit clique: a group of people small enough to make continual in-jokes about each other in real life. It’s actually true that Nick ‘Disco’ Boles, now planning minister, holidays in Ibiza and rents a house with the Goves and the -Camerons. If our politics were a meritocracy, run by people who did not go to school together and date each other, I would not have been taken at all seriously. As it stood, Britain is once again run by a ‘magic circle’ — and my tweets had them in thrall.
I am not a fan of Prime Minister’s Question Time, with its lack of discipline, its manipulation and its forced melodrama. My weekly assaults on the cynical devices that all insiders recognise at PMQs were generously retweeted. I pointed out the condescending female guard of honour routinely placed behind Dave to show he loves women. I listed the rehearsed impromptu put-downs and whip-planted questions by #keentoplease non-entities: ‘Does the PM agree with me’ etc, followed by a ‘spontaneous’ announcement of good news from Dave. My aim was to expose the whole charade, to point out the strings behind the puppets.
The humour lived in the voice. Arrogant, acerbic, abusive — a tone Hilton’s colleagues would recognise. I called everyone by surname, especially MPs. My version of Steve Hilton considered himself a streetwise infallible genius, holding the Prime Minister (or ‘the warlord’ as the Guru called him) in utter reverence. Authenticity was crucial. I used the names of special advisers, and used them regularly. Rohan ‘Ro’ Silva was regularly cited as my sidekick and intellectual manservant. When Louise Mensch made a private visit to No. 10, I tweeted asking if she enjoyed it — which drove her (and her hosts) wild with curiosity.
The intrigue quickly turned into a full witchhunt, mainly due to some very lucky guesses on my part: Fred Goodwin’s knighthood being stripped, Huhne’s exit, even prior mention of a breakfast meeting with No. 10 arranged by the editor of this organ. My favourites were bade into the highly exclusive Wigwam of Trust on Friday afternoons. A newspaper proprietor lamented his lack of invitation.
The guru’s author was offered a spa break, the chance to write articles, to co-write a play, even publish all the tweets in a book. I loved nothing better than convening with hacks and Westminster types that followed SteveHiltonGuru and awkwardly joining the inevitable ‘Who is he?’ conversations.
Now and again, I’d have Hilton threaten to flounce off to California. I would end tweets with ‘#SunIsShiningInPaloAlto’, guessing this was what lingered at the back of Hilton’s disorganised mind. As it turned out, I guessed correctly — Hilton departed to become a visiting scholar at Stanford University. I had to give up my little game, but I kept my anonymity. At Hilton’s leaving party, I was delighted to hear Michael Gove’s speech based on the character I had created. Steve had been true to his Hungarian roots, the Education Secretary said: half-Buddha and half-pest. I wish I’d thought of that one. But that’s the problem for anyone trying to satirise this lot: they really are beyond parody.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 October 2012