Oliver Letwin apologises to Sheffield. Or does he?

Tory minister’s slip of the tongue shows what our Old Etonian rulers really think of the north.

A few days ago, Oliver Letwin got into trouble after he said he did not want to see people from Sheffield using cheap flights to go on holiday. He had been talking to Boris Johnson about airport policy. Only the two men knew who said what and one of them leaked what had been said.

The remark caused huge offence in South Yorkshire, with Nick Clegg saying Letwin was not very popular in Sheffield. (Clegg is a bit of an expert on politicians and popularity in Sheffield.)

I wrote to Letwin asking him to apologise to people in South Yorkshire after his patronising insult. Today, I received a reply in which he writes:

I don't think it would be appropriate for me to comment on what is alleged to have been said in a private conversation. However, I can assure you that I would never knowingly say something offensive to the people of Sheffield.

I have been trying to deconstruct his letter. Letwin, after all, has the reputation of being an intellectual. Yet this is the oddest not-quite-an-apology I have ever seen from a minister. Letwin says he would "never knowingly say something offensive" about the people of Sheffield. That sounds as if he is admitting he did make the remarks attributed to him which have caused such offence in South Yorkshire – but that he did not make them "knowingly".

Letwin was silly to assume any conversation with his fellow Old Etonian Boris Johnson would ever remain private if Boris could turn it to his advantage as part of his campaign to distance himself from his other Old Etonian mate David Cameron, in order to stay on as Mayor of London.

The notion of a private conversation is not one that this generation of Old Etonian Tories understands – especially where there is political advantage to be gained. I think it is safe to assume that Letwin did make the offensive remarks attributed to him, but would not make them in public.

Is not this double standard – sneering at South Yorkshire people in private but saying he would not "knowingly" do so in public – precisely what this present government stands accused of? In public, its members claim to support the National Health Service, help poorer students, keep our forests public or work constructively in Europe. Behind the veil, however, the private view of our new governing elite is very different.

I guess we must thank Boris for breaching a confidence and showing what our Old Etonian rulers really think of the north.

Denis MacShane is the MP for Rotherham (Labour) and a former minister for Europe at the Foreign Office.

Denis MacShane is MP for Rotherham and was a minister at Foreign and Commonwealth Office
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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.