Streetwise Tory Begs to Differ with Claims of Eccentricity; the Monday Interview: Oliver Letwin Shadow Home Secretary
Marie Woolf Chief Political Correspondent, The Independent (London, England)
BLUE AND white striped pyjamas hang on the back of the bathroom door. A stray pair of grey socks is lying about, the type schoolboys wear. These are tell-tale signs that Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, has come to stay.
Mr Letwin, aged 471/2, was once seen in striped pyjamas arguing with robbers outside his London home. "What's the matter with striped pyjamas?" he asks incredulously. "Doesn't everybody wear pyjamas? I think it's completely normal."
But what seems "completely normal" in the genial world of Oliver Letwin is not normal elsewhere. The amiable Tory MP became a victim of crime after inviting two strangers into his pounds 800,000 London house at 5am because they said they wanted to use the lavatory. The men promptly robbed him.
These days Mr Letwin is more streetwise, a matter that causes him regret. Frontbench politics has cost him some of his schoolboyish innocence. He no longer stops to help strangers stranded on the motorway or invites people into his house, for fear of the consequences. "If people ask to go to the loo now at five in the morning, I will not let them in," he says.
Mr Letwin is trying "very hard not to live up to the image of the eccentric". But events are conspiring against him. The Tory party's most imaginative thinker was pilloried last week for admitting he would rather go begging than send his children to a London state school.
His local comprehensive in Lambeth was furious and there were thinly veiled suggestions that the Eton-educated Tory was an elitist. These he rejects, and likewise dismisses sug-gestions that he wants to avoid Lambeth schools because of the high proportion of children for whom English is a second language. "I couldn't care less if they are full of immigrants," he says. "Of course there are problems the Lambeth schools will have with that, but the issue here is lack of choice."
Mr Letwin also denies he wants his children to go to top public schools because of family tradition. "I couldn't care less about that. My parents went to absolutely ordinary tax-funded schools in Chicago," he says.
Yet the Conservative MP for Dorset West, one of the country's most idyllic seats, squirms as he tries to explain precisely what it is about Lambeth schools that would drive him to go begging to avoid them.
"I believe the children there do not have a chance equivalent to that which children in west Dorset schools have or which children in independent schools have," he says. "I am not just talking about dry as dust results in a particular examination. I am talking about whether their minds are trained."
Mr Letwin's voice grows shriller and more urgent as he defends his proposition, insisting the issue is "academic standards and the discipline and orderliness of the school", not state education. "Wherever you go you will be among people who vary from saints to sinners, he says. "I was among people at Eton who I believe have ended up in jail."
One of Mr Letwin's friends at Eton who did not was Charles Moore, who stood down as editor of The Daily Telegraph this month to write the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher. She was an early mentor of Mr Letwin, and remains his political heroine. As a twenty- something aide de camp of the former Tory prime minister, Mr Letwin invented the poll tax, a policy he now admits was a "total disaster".
The shadow Home Secretary is not afraid of proposing radical and sometimes outlandish solutions to serious problems. These include suggesting paedophiles be fitted with satellite- tracking devices.
Mr Letwin drew cries of amazement last week when he unveiled plans to send asylum- seekers to "faraway" and "poor" places such as Papua New Guinea to be processed. St Helena, where Napoleon …
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Publication information: Article title: Streetwise Tory Begs to Differ with Claims of Eccentricity; the Monday Interview: Oliver Letwin Shadow Home Secretary. Contributors: Marie Woolf Chief Political Correspondent - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: October 13, 2003. Page number: 12. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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