Oliver Letwin’s new book is far too well-written and scandal-free to have made a splash. But it helps to demonstrate why the utility to the Conservative Party of a man who has served it for the best part of 40 years is not yet exhausted.
As it happens, Letwin’s judgements on some of his colleagues in Hearts and Minds: the battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the present are pungent – though its silences are perhaps even more telling. However, his purpose is not to take the usual anecdotal canter from youthful ambition through Ministerial office to mild regret. It is instead a kind of intellectual adventure story: how a man who had a ringside seat when Thatcherism was formed, and who helped to further it when the Lady herself was in office, eventually concluded that it wasn’t enough – and indeed is flawed in some respects.
Thatcherism, of course, has many interpretations, but the one we are deploying here, and Letwin more or less uses in his memoir, is the belief that a small state, free markets, lower taxes and less regulation is enough – accompanied by a certain divisiveness by which people are sorted into “one of us” or the reverse. “What neither Mrs T nor these theorists really grasped was that some people at some times in their lives are deprived by circumstance from exercising any effective choice – and therefore cannot participate properly as autonomous actors in a free society and a free market,” he writes.
One might therefore guess that his political heroes have become the “wets” of his youth, who opposed the thrust of Thatcherism while he was advancing it in government as a special adviser. Not so. They are the Cabinet member he was then working for, Keith Joseph, and the Tory leader he worked for later, Iain Duncan Smith.
According to Letwin, Joseph was driven primarily by the urge to undertake not economic but social reform, and saw the market economy as the best means to help the disadvantaged, poor and deprived. And in his interpretation of events, Duncan Smith supplied a missing policy element: the stress on using civil society and state action to conquer five giants – unemployment, poor schooling, family breakdown, debt spiral and drug dependency. Letwin is right. If a man can’t read, his social mobility will be limited. If he is mired in debt, slashing regulation won’t help him to get and keep a job. If he is drug dependent, cutting his taxes will be no use to him. Rather the reverse.
As an adolescent, Letwin sat at home around the table with his parents, Bill and Shirley, and watched and learned and (sometimes) talked when Friedman and Hayek and Popper visited. As a young man, he was Joseph’s SpAd and worked in Thatcher’s Policy Unit. As a middle-aged politician, he was Duncan Smith’s Shadow Home Secretary, near the heart of a remarkable policy flowering in opposition. As an older one, he was David Cameron’s go-to man, helping to hold first the Coalition and then David Cameron’s majority Government together from the Cabinet Office.
This site’s long-held view is that Cameron’s greatest achievement was to let a generation of outstanding ministers get on with delivering social reform: Theresa May at the Home Office with policing, Michael Gove at Education, and Duncan Smith himself with welfare. Their efforts were underpinned by Francis Maude in his work of Whitehall reform. Letwin was the man who walked ahead of the parade to clear its way, dashed back into its ranks to sort out any confusion or disagreement among those marching, and darted behind with a brush and pan – sometimes all at once. His experience at the heart of government is unparalleled among modern Tories.
This site disagrees strongly with some of his judgements, for what it’s worth. For example, he believes that Cameron’s renegotiation deal really did mark a new departure in Britain’s relationship with the EU. We don’t. He is sometimes harsh about social conservatives. But Duncan Smith is a social conservative. He has acquired a reputation for eccentricty which is boosted by exaggeration. For example, he did not throw torn-up Cabinet papers into bins in St James’s Park. (The documents in question were constituency correspondence, and it is against confidentiality rules to do this.)
None the less, if one surveys the long stretch of government from 2010 until 2017, and mulls Letwin’s part in them, the number of administrative cock-ups in which he himself was implicated are few. The Coalition made it through to its 2015 endpoint, in the face of predictions to the contrary in some quarters, including this one.
Andrew Gimson wrote recently that to help win a new generation of young voters, the Conservatives need a new Swinton College – or a modern equivalent. There is interest in the idea at CCHQ. Eric Pickles suggested a practically-orientated version in his recent report. But that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party presents a new challenge to centre-right ideas is a truth too obvious to linger on. If Letwin has the time to think aloud about the future of the Conservative Party, it follows that he also has time to act to change it. In the absence of Michael Gove, and with the possible assistance of David Willetts and others, there is a role for Letwin here, if he is interested. That he is apparently sceptical about whether there is really such a thing as Conservative philosophy at all is not necessarily a disadvantage.