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
Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.