`I Don't Have a Quiet Life and nor Am I Making Pots of Money. I Must Be Mad'; the Interview: Oliver Letwin ; but the Ex-Merchant Banker Isn't Afraid of the `Big Beast' of Labour. as He Tells Jason Nisse, He's Ready to Step out of Gordon Brown's Shadow
Nisse, Jason, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)
Number 11 Downing Street is one of the most attractive buildings in Whitehall. Its public rooms are large and airy, decorated in a soft classical style, while its apartments are so spacious that Tony Blair took them over to give extra room for his family, who would have felt cramped in Number 10.
By contrast, the rooms occupied by the shadow Chancellor are small, dark and a little shabby. Oliver Letwin's desk is heavy with papers. A bag underneath groans with more documents, while a table next to it, nominally there for meetings, is weighed down with piles of unread books, the most prominent of which is a biography of a man whose job the former NM Rothschild merchant banker and academic covets, Gordon Brown.
As the Chancellor stands up to present his Budget on Wednesday - rather than the customary Tuesday, a break with tradition like Autumn Statements in December and lounge suits at the Lord Mayor's banquet - Letwin will be lying in wait. Unlike his predecessors in the job - the current Tory leader Michael Howard and the soon-to-be retiring Michael Portillo - he can see a chink in the Chancellor's armour.
"Five years ago it was impossible [taking on Brown]," admits Letwin. At that time the former Labour firebrand was sticking religiously to the financial strictures set down by the Conservative Chancellor he succeeded, Kenneth Clarke. Labour was adopting the Tory-created Private Finance Initiative and "prudence" was the watchword.
Add to that the formidable intellect of Brown, who even his harshest critics can't help but admire, and you see how hard a job being shadow Chancellor was.
But the chipper Letwin, whose gaffs about asylum-seekers when he was shadow Home Secretary, and over tax cuts during the last election, threatened to sink his career, is now genuinely relishing the battle with the "big beast" on the Labour front bench.
"Gordon has a seismic problem. This is not plan A," beams Letwin. By this, he does not mean that Brown thought he would be Prime Minister by now and someone else would be grappling with the economy. No: he is referring to the growing black hole in the public finances, which are anything up to pounds 20bn worse off than the Chancellor had expected, depending on which economist you ask.
"Gordon expected to come up to this Budget with a tiny level of borrowing, pounds 10bn or so, and plenty of areas for manoeuvre. But it has all gone wrong: he is sitting there with pounds 37bn of borrowing. Everybody is saying he has a black hole in his finances. Everybody is saying he has to raise taxes. And then he has the Exocet of Gershon."
"Gershon" is the report on the efficiency of public services being produced by Sir Peter Gershon, the former managing director of GEC and head of the Office of Government Commerce. Although not published yet, it was extensively leaked a few weeks ago, just ahead of an announcement that Letwin was due to make on the Tories' medium- term spending plans. Gershon is expected to say there are at least pounds 15bn of annual savings that government can make in increased "back office" efficiencies.
The Tories have their own version of Gershon, a study by corporate troubleshooter David James. This indicates that the savings could be even larger - maybe as much as pounds 35bn a year. Even the Liberal Democrats have their own version of this, with a hitlist of savings targeting quangos and bureaucracy.
Much has been made of the differences between the Gershon plan and those of the opposition parties. Letwin is even coming under pressure within his own party. …