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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.