Peter Oborne

Howard’s Conservative party has made astonishing progress in a very short time

Howard’s Conservative party has made astonishing progress in a very short time

Just before the 1966 World Cup the England manager Sir Alf Ramsey remarked that his talented midfielder Martin Peters was ‘ten years ahead of his time’. Peters himself was displeased by the observation, but Ramsey was in reality being flattering. He meant that his player was not truly at ease among the clodhopping defenders and midfield ‘hard men’ who set the tone in the 1960s. Peters’s fluid, complex, visionary style anticipated an era that had not yet arrived.

Very much the same can be said of Oliver Letwin, the shadow chancellor. To the more primitive type of Tory back-bencher, Letwin is the object of contempt. Letwin refuses to use soundbites, the mind-numbing currency of contemporary debate, though attentive readers of his thoughtful and well-written speeches will find witticisms and the occasional epigram. The stupider type of MP, wedded to the conventions of the very recent past, takes this as an affront. They are angered too by Letwin’s outrageous refusal to resort to ignorant abuse and his consistent attribution of the highest motives even to his political opponents. Worst of all is Letwin’s use of long words and serious argument, and utter refusal to descend into cheap populism.

Instead of attending to the grim rituals which pass for modern political activity, Letwin has taken a step back from the contemporary political scene. Though shadow chancellor for barely six months, he has already created a coherent, well-researched and fundamentally Tory critique of Gordon Brown’s management of national finances.

Because of the way that New Labour is constructed, above all Tony Blair’s curious decision to allow domestic policy to be controlled from the Treasury, Letwin has been obliged to undertake a wider analysis of New Labour in government than perhaps he originally envisaged.

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