Greasy Pole: Oliver Letwin – Eccentric or Fake?

There is more to West Dorset than the Jurassic Coastline. It is also a parliamentary constituency where, in the 2005 general election, they registered the highest turn-out in the United Kingdom. Effectively it is the Lib Dems who are now the opposition there – and this in a constituency which includes the tragic village of Tolpuddle. The Tory-comfortable loyalty of this corner of rural England is now represented by Oliver Letwin, consistently one of the party’s policy wonks, once Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Shadow Home Secretary, author of a doctoral thesis Ethics, Emotion and the Unity of the Self, but also the originator of some of the most spectacular blunders even among Honourable Members. He refuses to read newspapers because they tell him “nothing I need to know” – but what they tell us about him suggests there are other reasons for his calamitous record.

Liberals and Fabians
Even before he came into Parliament, Letwin was displaying symptoms of what we might politely call a characteristic confusion. At Cambridge he was active in the university Liberal Club and later explained how this fitted in with his career aim to become the Conservative leader: “I was also a member of the Fabian Society…this was because I was interested in the thoughts of Liberals and Fabians (and still am) rather than because I was a Liberal Democrat or a Fabian”. It is probably kindest to assume that the famously brainy Letwin resolved this contradiction with a typically clever evasion – joining a party opposed to both the others – which, incidentally, offered him the best chance of reaching the top in politics. His first attempts to become a parliamentary candidate were for two London seats. West Dorset in 1997 was much gentler and more secure, offering shelter from Tony Blair’s landslide. But then came the blunders. In 2001 he was credited (Gordon Brown went so far as to thank him) with helping Labour to stay in power by proposing, as Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that a Tory government would reduce public expenditure to the tune of some £20 billion – a seriously unpopular suggestion. Many politicians would have responded to such pressure by simply bluffing it out, but Letwin chose to go underground, which provided yet more ammunition to his opponents, such as the Labour party member who dressed as Sherlock Holmes and, complete with bloodhound, pretended to sniff out the fugitive Shadow Minister.

Letwin’s stints as Shadow Home Secretary followed by the equally prestigious Shadow Chancellor, may have boosted his self-esteem to the point of seeing himself as a future party leader and then, after a little inter-reaction with the voters, Prime Minister. But it would also have made him vulnerable to the predatory tunnelling of his rivals. In 2003 he was leaked as saying that he would “rather go out on the streets and beg” than let his children go to an inner-city London comprehensive. In reply to the consequent storm of outrage the best he could do was to protest that the remark had been made in a private conversation – which failed to answer his critics and left untouched the central matter of Letwin’s acceptance that what is called education is, like all else in capitalism, class determined.

Schooled in these prejudices at Eton, Letwin is now a director of the Sherborne School for Girls, whose annual fees are as much as £26,700. A multimillionaire, he works for N.M.Rothschild, described as a finance house, where he “earns” £5020 for 35 hours work in a year – not enough to pay for a place at Sherborne but a useful sum to the parents of comprehensive kids. This secure lifestyle is in contrast to that of employees such as teachers and hospital staff, who were recently attacked by him for their supposed lack of application to their work. At a meeting at KPMG – another collection of financiers – he gave vent to what seemed to be a particular frustration to him: “You can’t,” he raved, “have room for innovation and the pressure for excellence without having some real discipline and some fear on the part of the providers that things may go wrong if they don’t live up to the aims that society as a whole is demanding of them”. However, he seemed to be ready to abandon his own guidelines for disciplining fear when in May 2005 he was moved from Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at his request for a less demanding job to follow his career among the bankers and the hedge traders in the City. After the Tory win in May 2010 he got even more free time when Cameron appointed him to the new, vaguely titled job of Minister of State for Policy.

Despite his reassuringly avuncular exterior, Letwin can give voice to some pretty scabrous opinions on those he regards as his social inferiors. In April, in a clash with his fellow Old Etonian Boris Johnson over the expansion of airports, he sneered “We don’t want more people from Sheffield flying away on cheap holidays” – which united Johnson and several thousand others, including Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg, in outrage. Undeterred, Letwin attracted further merciless exposure in the media when he was observed, while walking in a Westminster park, stuffing a lot of official correspondence into rubbish bins and giving some to a collector. His attempt to defuse the matter by explaining that “I…simply wanted to make sure the pieces of paper were not weighing me down” was less than helpful to him. It has been known for a politician who is in a tangle with the voters to try to divert attention from their confusion with a cloak of beguiling eccentricity. It is, however, unusual to be confronted by so blatant and unrepentant a practitioner as the Rt. Hon Oliver Letwin MP – one of the more extreme, exotic leaders to personify the system’s stagnant and wasteful character.

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