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.
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.”