The NS Interview: Oliver Letwin; Blunkett's Shadow Admits "People Do Not Pay Us Much Attention" and Sounds as If He Wants to Go Home
Riddell, Mary, New Statesman (1996)
Oliver Letwin's office rings to say he is running five minutes late. The call seems courteous but unnecessary, unless the shadow home secretary fears that any minor delay on his part may signify a relapse into his Macavity habit. During the general election campaign, Letwin inadvertently disclosed that the Tories were aiming for a [pounds sterling]20bn tax cut by 2006. Then he disappeared. Though the groomed farmland of his West Dorset constituency is not to be compared with an Afghan cavescape, the bunker-busters of the media failed to dislodge Letwin. Posters went up. Rewards were offered. The episode was, as he now acknowledges, a terrible blunder.
"I learnt two lessons from it. The first is that I shall never again in my life give any interview unless it's on the record. And second, if anything I say ever again becomes the subject of huge interest, I shall be in front of the television cameras in 30 milliseconds." So why did he agree to hide? Was it, perhaps, because William Hague ordered him to? "I am going to maintain a total silence," he says virtuously.
On the substantive point of a [pounds sterling]20bn cut (as opposed to Hague's [pounds sterling]8bn target), Letwin seems astonishingly unrepentant. When I ask why he mooted such an alarming plan, he says: "Oh. Well, I am surprised that you find it alarming. I think the mistake we made was to think that the people of Britain realised the truth: namely, that a very small part of our national budget is spent on things people notice -- schools, hospitals and so on.
"We now understand that no one will pay the slightest attention to claims that it is possible to control the growth of public spending over time -- which is all we wanted to do -- unless we can first convince them that we can provide better schools and hospitals and roads and trains without spending a colossal extra amount of taxpayers' money. That is where we are now focused."
So the [pounds sterling]20bn is still there for the saving, once state shrinkage can be sold to the public? Although Letwin allows that the old figure will have to be updated ("the [pounds sterling]20bn is out of the window in the sense that it was [calculated] about a year ago"), he believes that the sum was never a mad aspiration, simply an idearolled out before its time. "Oh, yes. Controlling the growth of public spending is of course a Conservative aspiration."
While bullish about Tory credo, Letwin is unexpectedly diffident over whether the current line-up will recover fast enough to implement it. "Lasttime round, we hadn't learnt how to engage in opposition. We were too inclined to spot an opportunity for grabbing a headline and too exposed to having to reverse the decision later." This Hagueish nemesis is presented by Letwin, who served in his shadow cabinet, as collective culpability. "All my political formation has been in government... I'm as guilty as anyone of not understanding what it is to be in opposition. What I hadn't come to terms with, but have now, is that what people most want to know about an opposition -- as and when they're not inclined to vote for the government -- is this: are these people in whom you would safely put your trust to let them run your country?"
Surely the voting public is some way from this epiphany? "Nowhere near, nowhere near," he cries. "We have a huge hill to climb. It is very large. We have to re-establish, with millions of citizens who are very disenchanted and very cross, our credibility as an alternative government. That isn't something we are going to be able to do in a week or a month or a year. It's something we have to try and do over four years."
Is even that achievable? "I don't know, I don't know. I hope it's doable... We have been in a long and bleak abeyance, and I want to see us come out of that. We have to realise that, in order to do so, we have to behave in the ways I have described (no more yah-boo politics) and realise that it's going to take time. …