Peter Oborne

Letwin’s panoramic sweep and intellectual ambition

Letwin’s panoramic sweep and intellectual ambition

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This has been by far the dullest week in British politics since well before the 2001 general election. Yet it would be wrong to say that nothing is going on; far from it. A meddling government has resolved, once again, to tear up the examination system. There is a Cabinet rift over the treatment of migrant workers from Eastern Europe. The emergence of a prospective President Kerry in the United States has left Tony Blair looking too close to President Bush for comfort. Unemployment sank to a 28-year low — though scarcely reported, it was the most significant political event of the week.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that there have been no crises, wars or dramas of any kind. The famous Downing Street grid, through which government officials strive to plot events for weeks in advance, has gone according to plan for the first time in memory.

For the second week running (a record) — leaving aside the intermittent leadership crises — the Conservatives are the more interesting political party. Michael Howard has delivered three groundbreaking speeches in under two weeks. Each has addressed areas of high importance: immigration, Europe and the role of the state. They have all been sensible as well as newsworthy, a notably difficult double act to pull off in opposition. As the Conservative leader knows well, Britain is entering a 15-month period which will be dominated by elections. European and the London mayoral contests loom in June. In all probability, a general election will be called in the spring or early summer of next year.

Michael Howard is preparing himself as a good general should: setting his battle lines, establishing his lines of retreat, defining his terms, ensuring his lines of supply and communication, steadily moving his troops into position. There is a sense of bustle, purpose and determination in the Tory camp, which shows that Howard is setting about his task with competence and easy skill.

But the most important of last week’s speeches did not come from the Tory leader. It was the shadow Chancellor Oliver Letwin’s lecture on Monday — speech does not do justice to his panoramic sweep, intellectual ambition and austere academic style. Letwin addressed head-on the central problem which the Conservative party must solve if it is not to dissolve in the furnace of an election: where to stand on Labour’s spending commitments. Before the 1992 general election, the shadow chancellor John Smith faced the mirror image of the Letwin dilemma. He had to confront the problem of what to say about tax. Smith made a mess of things and Labour lost. It was essential that Letwin got it right on spending last week.

The early impression is that the shadow Chancellor has spectacularly redefined the public-spending debate, to the advantage of the Conservative party. The first objective of Letwin’s speech was precautionary. He needed to build up defences against inevitable Labour claims that the Conservatives were a ‘slash and burn’ political party — just as John Smith needed to defend Labour against Tory slurs that it was a tax-raising rabble in 1992. Letwin brought off this limited but vital objective. Now that a shadow Chancellor as transparently honest as Letwin has given his unequivocal assurances about health and education spending, it is simply not credible for Labour to say that a Conservative victory will lead to closed schools and hospitals.

Labour made the claims anyway. Treasury secretary Ruth Kelly, in an intellectually catastrophic contribution, promptly warned that Letwin’s plans meant giant cuts in education and health. Her tired and cynical remarks were swiftly holed below the waterline by the Treasury’s own leaked report into government waste by Sir Peter Gershon. Humiliatingly for Kelly, Gershon reached the same conclusion as Letwin. Health Secretary John Reid and Cabinet Office minister Douglas Alexander followed the Kelly line of attack, but in doing so did damage to their own reputations, and failed to land a blow on the shadow Chancellor.

But Letwin did more than build a defensive bulwark against unscrupulous New Labour attack. He also evaded a more insidious kind of pressure. Even though promising to bring back public spending from 42 to 40 per cent of GDP — a move absurdly attacked by Gordon Brown as ‘extreme’ (the Chancellor should learn to use his language more carefully) — Letwin refused to commit to tax cuts. He insisted on leaving himself room to address the budget deficit, now close to being out of control. There was heavy shadow Cabinet pressure last week for an explicit commitment to tax reduction, which Letwin saw off with some difficulty. Nothing would have been easier than to give in, and he would have won easy applause on the populist Right. Instead, he plumped for a steady, mature political economy which should give the Conservatives real economic credibility of a kind they have not enjoyed since sterling was evicted from the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992.

Ever since Letwin emerged as a force in the shadow Cabinet three years ago, he has been redefining British politics. He has introduced a new rigour, style, elegance and honesty into debate. At times this makes him look awkward, and he becomes open to the kind of vulgar ridicule and misrepresentation which Labour tried on last week. But Letwin has the moral stature and the personal integrity to shrug off these attacks, and he is growing as a politician all the time.

He is the antithesis of New Labour. The culture of spin and deceit is utterly foreign to Letwin. Admittedly he does possess a public relations man, one Henry Macrory. Macrory is an interesting example of the salutary effect Letwin can have on people. In a previous life he was political editor of the Daily Star, which is as close to gutter journalism as you can get. His weekly political report, ‘Mac the Knife’, gave no quarter, while the less said the better about his disgraceful ghosted agony column, ‘Uncle Percy — He Sorts Your Probs’. Letwin has tamed the beast in Macrory. His press aide is now the model of courtesy, decorum and above all discretion. So far as I know he never leaks in advance, nor briefs against colleagues. He is of little or no use to journalists; certainly not worth the investment of a lunch. The reformed Macrory is an anti-spin doctor, while Letwin is an anti-politician.

In the last two weeks Michael Howard and Oliver Letwin have gone about creating a new kind of politics. There has been no show or ostentation, just sober argument and rigorous debate. They have been doing what proper, serious politicians should always do: define the landscape themselves rather than let it define them.