Magazine article The Spectator

Letwin's Panoramic Sweep and Intellectual Ambition

Magazine article The Spectator

Letwin's Panoramic Sweep and Intellectual Ambition

Article excerpt

This has been by far the dullest week in British politics since well before the 2001 general election. Yet it would be wrong to say that nothing is going on; far from it. A meddling government has resolved, once again, to tear up the examination system. There is a Cabinet rift over the treatment of migrant workers from Eastern Europe. The emergence of a prospective President Kerry in the United States has left Tony Blair looking too close to President Bush for comfort. Unemployment sank to a 28-year low - though scarcely reported, it was the most significant political event of the week.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that there have been no crises, wars or dramas of any kind. The famous Downing Street grid, through which government officials strive to plot events for weeks in advance, has gone according to plan for the first time in memory.

For the second week running (a record) - leaving aside the intermittent leadership crises - the Conservatives are the more interesting political party. Michael Howard has delivered three groundbreaking speeches in under two weeks. Each has addressed areas of high importance: immigration, Europe and the role of the state. They have all been sensible as well as newsworthy, a notably difficult double act to pull off in opposition. As the Conservative leader knows well, Britain is entering a 15-month period which will be dominated by elections. European and the London mayoral contests loom in June. In all probability, a general election will be called in the spring or early summer of next year.

Michael Howard is preparing himself as a good general should: setting his battle lines, establishing his lines of retreat, defining his terms, ensuring his lines of supply and communication, steadily moving his troops into position. There is a sense of bustle, purpose and determination in the Tory camp, which shows that Howard is setting about his task with competence and easy skill.

But the most important of last week's speeches did not come from the Tory leader. It was the shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin's lecture on Monday - speech does not do justice to his panoramic sweep, intellectual ambition and austere academic style. Letwin addressed head-on the central problem which the Conservative party must solve if it is not to dissolve in the furnace of an election: where to stand on Labour's spending commitments. Before the 1992 general election, the shadow chancellor John Smith faced the mirror image of the Letwin dilemma. He had to confront the problem of what to say about tax. Smith made a mess of things and Labour lost. It was essential that Letwin got it right on spending last week.

The early impression is that the shadow Chancellor has spectacularly redefined the public-spending debate, to the advantage of the Conservative party. The first objective of Letwin's speech was precautionary. He needed to build up defences against inevitable Labour claims that the Conservatives were a 'slash and burn' political party -just as John Smith needed to defend Labour against Tory slurs that it was a tax-raising rabble in 1992. Letwin brought off this limited but vital objective. Now that a shadow Chancellor as transparently honest as Letwin has given his unequivocal assurances about health and education spending, it is simply not credible for Labour to say that a Conservative victory will lead to closed schools and hospitals. …

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