Enigmatic Svengali Who Took Young Tory from Rank Outsider to Contender for No10; Known as 'Dave's Brain' or 'The Guru' by Tory MPs, Steve Hilton Is David Cameron's Closest Confidant. A Combination of Alastair Campbell, Philip Gould and Peter Mandelson, the Low-Profile Director of Strategy Could Get the Tories Back into Power, Writes Paul Waugh

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ON THE night of David Cameron's first speech to the Tory conference as leader, a slightly scruffy figure raised a few eyebrows as he chatted with colleagues in the Highcliff Hotel.

Shaven-headed Steve Hilton was wearing jeans, trainers and a faded Commission for Racial Equality T-shirt beloved of many on the Left.

His shirt depicted three human brains all of the same size and with the labels "European", "African", "Asian". A fourth, smaller brain carried the label "Racist".

Himself the brains behind Mr Cameron's drive to re-brand the Conservatives, Mr Hilton's choice of attire captured perfectly his crusade to change and challenge the party. "An eloquent, strong image that confounds expectations - that is the Hilton way," said an admirer. Just as he prefers, none of the blue-rinsed delegates recognised the 36-year-old Director of Strategy. Yet hours earlier, dressed in his other uniform of a tieless sharp suit, it was Mr Hilton who oversaw the Tory leader's every move on the conference stage.

Watching Mr Cameron like a hawk, the former Saatchi & Saatchi ad man could be forgiven for savouring the moment as his friend transfixed his audience in front of the enormous slogan, A New Direction.

This week represents the culmination of nearly 18 months' work by Mr Hilton in taking Mr Cameron from a rank outsider in the Tory leadership race to a serious contender for Prime Minister. Part Svengali, part spin doctor, part strategist, his influence is huge.

Although there is a clutch of people who offer invaluable help and advice, it is Hilton and shadow chancellor George Osbornewho are in the innermost circle around the leader.

The son of parents who fled Hungary in 1956, Mr Hilton has the classic outsider's background that informs his political credo. A myth has grown up that his father changed the family name on coming to England and seeing a Hilton hotel. Mr Hilton disputes this, but he was raised in relative poverty before winning a scholarship to Christ's Hospital in Sussex, and then going up to Oxford to read philosophy, politics and economics.

Robin Harris, the director of research at Conservative Central Office, gave him his first break with a job. Harris had already talent-spotted another bright Oxford graduate, one D Cameron, and the pair hit it off. It was during this time that he met Rachel Whetstone, his current partner and sometime chief of staff to Michael Howard.

After being put in charge of Central Office liaison with Saatchi & Saatchi for the 1992 general election, Mr Hilton's star quality was spotted once more. Maurice Saatchi gave him a job, declaring later that: "No one reminds me as much of me when young as Steve".

After working on a variety of political campaigns, including advising Boris Yeltsin, he was tempted back to the Tories for what is so far the only black mark on his CV. It was Mr Hilton who devised the ill-fated "Demon Eyes" poster campaign at the 1997 election. …