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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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