Oliver Letwin's biggest gaffes

Including, "the NHS will cease to exist", "we'll run out of ideas" and "we'll cut taxes by £20bn".

Like many intellectuals in politics, Oliver Letwin has a habit of saying more than he should. So, on the day that the Cabinet Office minister is in the headlines for dumping government papers in a park bin, The Staggers presents his five biggest gaffes.

5. We'll run out of ideas by 2012 - April 2011

Lefties didn't know whether to cheer or to sigh after Letwin told a group of coalition MPs that the government would have run out of ideas by 2012.

One PPS at the meeting confessed to Sky News's Sopy Ridge: "It was the most depressing meeting ever. Oliver told us, "By the end of 2012 we've run out of ideas. We don't know what we're doing - so we're trying to work it out.""

4. We don't want people from Sheffield having cheap holidays - April 2011

In the same month, Letwin was reported to have told Boris Johnson:

We don't want more people from Sheffield flying away on cheap holidays.

The gaffe was welcomed by few ministers other than Nick Clegg, who heralded the emergence of a politician even less popular than him in Sheffield.

Tellingly, Letwin refused to deny the comments: "I do not ever comment on things that are alleged to have been said in private conversations but I would never knowingly ever say anything offensive to anybody."

3. We're facing a growth crisis - March 2011

With admirable candour, Letwin remarked earlier this year that the country faced an "immediate national crisis" in the form of less growth and jobs than it needed.

He told the environmental audit select committee: "Leading up to the recent Budget, we took the view collectively in Cabinet that we faced an immediate national crisis in the form of less growth and jobs than we needed."

2. "NHS will not exist under the Tories" - June 2004

Years before Andrew Lansley was accused of attempting to dismantle the National Health Service, Letwin told a private meeting that the NHS would cease to exist within five years of a Conservative victory. In his words, the health service would instead be a "funding stream handing out money to pay people where they want to go for their healthcare".

1. We'll cut taxes by £20bn - May 2001

The original and the best. Letwin, then shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, was forced to go into hiding during the 2001 election campaign after briefing newspapers that the Conservatives planned to cut taxes by £20bn, far more than the £8bn promised by William Hague. He told the Financial Times that he was "190 per cent" confident that the Tories could offer additional cuts.

A furious Michael Portillo [then shadow chancellor] replied: "The figures are not right. I have made it perfectly clear that in the first budget I am only committed to £2.2bn worth of tax cuts and that is to produce the reduction in the tax on fuel ... At the end of my second year, I will have produced £8bn of tax cuts."

But the damage was done, with Labour producing "wanted" posters for Letwin.

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Incredibly, Letwin, by now shadow chancellor, all but repeated the error three years later when he was secretely recorded telling the Institute of Economic Affairs that he would like to cut public spending by billions more than planned but that it would be electorally disastrous to do so.

Letwin said that his preference would be to cut spending to "shall we say 35 or 30 per cent of Gross Domestic Spending" - rather than the 40 per cent planned by the Tories. His comments were political gold for Gordon Brown, who replied: "These are the most amazing admissions. We know he was committed to £18bn of spending cuts but now, by cutting public spending from 42 per cent to 30 per cent of GDP, he would cut £150bn. That is the equivalent of cutting health and schools from the public budget."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Scotland's vast deficit remains an obstacle to independence

Though the country's financial position has improved, independence would still risk severe austerity. 

For the SNP, the annual Scottish public spending figures bring good and bad news. The good news, such as it is, is that Scotland's deficit fell by £1.3bn in 2016/17. The bad news is that it remains £13.3bn or 8.3 per cent of GDP – three times the UK figure of 2.4 per cent (£46.2bn) and vastly higher than the white paper's worst case scenario of £5.5bn. 

These figures, it's important to note, include Scotland's geographic share of North Sea oil and gas revenue. The "oil bonus" that the SNP once boasted of has withered since the collapse in commodity prices. Though revenue rose from £56m the previous year to £208m, this remains a fraction of the £8bn recorded in 2011/12. Total public sector revenue was £312 per person below the UK average, while expenditure was £1,437 higher. Though the SNP is playing down the figures as "a snapshot", the white paper unambiguously stated: "GERS [Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland] is the authoritative publication on Scotland’s public finances". 

As before, Nicola Sturgeon has warned of the threat posed by Brexit to the Scottish economy. But the country's black hole means the risks of independence remain immense. As a new state, Scotland would be forced to pay a premium on its debt, resulting in an even greater fiscal gap. Were it to use the pound without permission, with no independent central bank and no lender of last resort, borrowing costs would rise still further. To offset a Greek-style crisis, Scotland would be forced to impose dramatic austerity. 

Sturgeon is undoubtedly right to warn of the risks of Brexit (particularly of the "hard" variety). But for a large number of Scots, this is merely cause to avoid the added turmoil of independence. Though eventual EU membership would benefit Scotland, its UK trade is worth four times as much as that with Europe. 

Of course, for a true nationalist, economics is irrelevant. Independence is a good in itself and sovereignty always trumps prosperity (a point on which Scottish nationalists align with English Brexiteers). But if Scotland is to ever depart the UK, the SNP will need to win over pragmatists, too. In that quest, Scotland's deficit remains a vast obstacle. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.