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.

A

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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.