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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.