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(Illustration by Michael Daley)


Now that David Cameron’s resignation honours list is almost as notorious as Harold Wilson’s “Lavender List”, even those whose inclusion is entirely merited have been presumed guilty. Among these unlucky individuals is Oliver Letwin, who is to receive a knighthood for political and public service. This particular honour was the occasion for snide comments about the “gaffe-prone” Etonian. Before explaining why this most underrated member of the Cameron government thoroughly deserves to be knighted, I should declare an interest: I have known Oliver for 40 years, since we first met as undergraduates, and I am very proud to be his friend.

He was the brilliant only child of Shirley Robin Letwin, a star of the first magnitude in a glittering constellation of conservative thinkers based mainly at Chicago, Cambridge and the LSE. His father Bill, also American, was a respected economist and the genial co-host of Shirley’s celebrated salon at Kent Terrace, NW1. Oliver belonged to an Oxbridge cohort that included Charles Moore, Sir Noel Malcolm, Lord Willetts — and his eventual nemesis, Theresa May. Initially, he followed his mother’s path into philosophy; in 1984 Ethics, Emotion and the Unity of the Self, based on his PhD thesis, was published.

By then, however, Dr Letwin had joined the advance guard of Thatcherism. In 1982 he began work for Sir Keith Joseph, the Education Secretary, moving swiftly on to Mrs Thatcher’s Policy Unit, where he stayed until 1986. At Downing Street, he was the only one who at least thought he knew how to use a computer. She indulged the odd glitch; his brains had already made him indispensable.

He and John Redwood masterminded privatisation: a shot in the arm for the British economy that did more than any other policy to put Margaret Thatcher on the map. At this point, having married Isabel Davidson, now the Director of Legal Services at the Department of Health, Letwin joined N.M. Rothschild. There he became a globe-trotting privatisation consultant and a director of the bank. The title of Letwin’s 1988 book Privatising the World said it all.

Front-line politics proved more of an uphill struggle. Hackney, which he fought in 1987, was a multicultural no-go area for Tories. Their constituency headquarters burnt down and Letwin lost to Diane Abbott, the first black woman MP. He fared better in Hampstead five years later, but lost again to the actress Glenda Jackson. Letwin finally entered Parliament in 1997 as MP for West Dorset, just as the Tories were annihilated by Tony Blair.

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John-Paul Marney
August 30th, 2016
1:08 PM
I yield to no-one in my respect for Daniel Johnson, but I nearly choked on my morning collation when he tried to make the case that Oliver Letwin, like my breakfast, was an all- round Good Egg. This is a man who very nearly closed down free speech in a squalid back-room deal over pizza. It was one of the most egregious aspects of the Cameron premiership that the elitist, self-righteous and self-appointed enemies of a free press were treated so deferentially. We almost lost a precious, hard-won and ancient liberty, which Mr Letwin seemed quite happy to concede on our behalf. I really don't think he is someone to admire.

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