Underrated: Oliver Letwin

The former Cabinet minister was the modest but highly effective lynchpin of the Cameron government

Underrated
(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.

Letwin was 40 when he began 13 years in opposition. He fought the 2001 election as Shadow Chief Secretary — only to find himself hounded by the press for promising that taxes would fall by £20 billion. Tax cuts are quite popular with voters, but Michael Portillo, the Shadow Chancellor, was furious and the Leader of the Opposition, William Hague, ordered Letwin to lie low for the rest of the campaign — a genuine gaffe because it enabled Labour to keep asking: “Where is Oliver Letwin?” After this second Tory defeat, Letwin was made Shadow Home Secretary by Iain Duncan Smith. His hope was to enable the “underclass” (then a new concept in British politics) to escape “the conveyer belt to crime”. In 2003 Michael Howard promoted him to Shadow Chancellor, but his tenure coincided with Gordon Brown’s boom; the bust came too late for Letwin.

By now he had become a public figure and the target of satire: Rory Bremner played him as a Regency fop, crying: “Oh, la!” He had also acquired enemies. The “stupid party” has entirely never trusted intellectuals, especially Jews. They were merciless when he let thieves into his house or disposed of documents in a park bin. Yet David Cameron did trust him: as leader, he put Letwin in charge of the Conservative Research Department. The arch-Thatcherite had become the very model of a modernising policy-maker-in-general. But Letwin stayed true to his belief that “the sacred task of politics” is “the preservation of civilisation”.

Cameron’s victories in 2010 and 2015 owed much to Letwin’s work behind the scenes. So did most of the successes of the coalition (which he brokered). From his eyrie at the Cabinet Office, nothing escaped the eagle eye of the Minister of State for Government Policy. In contrast to the petty squabbling of his colleagues, Letwin’s sweet reasonableness oiled the wheels of government. Above all, he lacked their pomposity. When Mrs May sacked him, he told friends gamely: “I think I’d have done exactly what Theresa is doing if I’d been in her (rather more elegant) shoes.”

His so-called gaffes mostly stemmed from a frankness rare in his profession. What mattered more was that he grasped, better than anyone else in his day, The Purpose of Politics (another of his book titles). Letwin wanted the most vulnerable to have “a better life through full participation in our society and civilisation”. He may never have achieved the highest offices, but he leaves a richer legacy than most of those who did. Sir Oliver Letwin has done the state some service, and they know it.