The rise and fall of Oliver Letwin: a private life of public power

As Oliver Letwin, chief architect of Cameron’s Conservatism, falls by the wayside, the Tories have put Labour supporters where they always wanted: shouting up at them from the streets below.

Freddy Foks
18 July 2016
 cooperniall. Flickr. Creative Commons.

Letwin at a westminster policy hearing, 2006. Photo: cooperniall. Flickr. Creative Commons. The rise and fall of Oliver Letwin reveals what has changed, and precisely what has stayed the same, in British politics since June 23. Theresa May’s decision to boot Letwin out as the head of the EU Policy Unit and bring David Davis in dramatizes the high-wire stakes of post-Brexit negotiations. While Corbynites punch at parliamentary sovereignty from positions staked out below it, the government’s Policy Unit serenely sucks its legitimacy from above the Conservative majority in the Commons with very little oversight and only the slimmest of democratic mandates. This should be a cause for alarm to anyone who isn’t currently sitting in 70, Whitehall.

This should be a cause for alarm to anyone who isn’t currently sitting in 70, Whitehall.

Oliver Letwin is the only son of prominent Conservative intellectuals. After a scholarship at Eton he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge and stayed on to do a PhD in philosophy. He joined Margaret Thatcher’s Policy Unit at No. 10 in 1983. In public domain images he can be seen in tweed jackets above voluminous red corduroys almost always pasted alongside inconsequential constituency news. This lack of public interest is striking considering that Letwin was, until Theresa May’s bonfire of the Cameronites, one of the most important figures in British politics for the past six years.

In a rare profile in Standpoint the conservative commentator Charles Moore recalls that Letwin’s childhood home was a “truly intellectual” community of conversation. Conversazione included Michael Oakeshott, Irving Kristol, Maurice Cowling and Friedrich von Hayek amongst any number of other conservative heavy hitters. Quick to see off any worries that the Letwins might have been in “secret training for some long march through the institutions”, Oliver’s eventual ascent to head the Cabinet Office was, Moore explains, merely a consequence of a recognition amongst interlocutors at 3, Kent Terrace that “Civilisation mattered a lot”.

“Civilisation” is a word that Oliver Letwin uses frequently in his writings. When mooting a response to the savaging New Labour had dealt the Conservatives in 1997 he coined the term “Civilised Conservatism”. In a pamphlet published two years later, Letwin argued that Labour’s politics should be fought on the rhetorical field of adjectives and adverbial nouns. “New”, “tough”, “clean”, “open”, “inclusive” were all words Labour commanded. He suggested the following terms to rescue the party of civilisation: “felt”, “experienced”, “understood”, “familiar”, “cherished”, “fundamental”, “sure”, “stable”, “secure”, “sound”, “free”, “right (not rights)”, “British.” “These are,” Letwin explained, “the words principally missing from New Labour's vocabulary.” These words have been the mainstay of Conservative party messaging for the past six years.

In this 1999 pamphlet Letwin spelled out the main principles of what would become Cameronite Conservatism: an emphasis on homely affect with a commitment to free market economics – rather like a Bake Off version of Thatcherism. Labour had reckoned with the deregulation of global markets in the 1990s, and, in doing so, had won power with an election pitch of populist modernism. But they had a problem with the cultural politics of deregulation. New Labour, Letwin wrote, 

"leaves us paddling alone on a hi-tech plastic canoe amid a sea of horrors. For those without a solidly constructed home, well made out of durable, traditional materials, the journey into the global marketplace is likely to prove a terrifying experience."

The Conservatives, on the other hand, possessed the requisite traditions to sail this boundless sea of free-floating currencies:

"It is precisely because Conservatives are the progenitors and friends of the modern free market, rather than being angst-ridden about it, that we can see inherited civilisation and the market, the old and the new, as allies, rather than as opposites."

 New Labour were a passing fadNew Labour were a passing fad. Their modernist canoe would soon sink as the party’s embrace of globalised finance capital clashed with the experience of their electoral base. In the meantime, the Conservatives should position themselves alongside, ready to pick up the swimmers.

Fast-forward seventeen years and Letwin’s political instincts seem to have been remarkably prescient. The Conservatives’ emphasis on security, right (not rights), and their cast of stable, homely characters (David Cameron, an affectionate, although at times endearingly ‘pumped up’, Dad, George Osborne, the nation’s brainiac uncle, Theresa May, its disciplinarian Mum, along with a family of other figures reassuring us with their ‘long-term economic plan’) has captured Britain’s language of politics.

Despite its undoubted success, however, Tory civilisation began to yaw and pitch alarmingly in the run up to the referendum. In the last few months a full-throated rhetoric of national belonging surged over the Conservative centre and threatened to sweep it away. In Brexit’s immediate aftermath the Cameronites’ retreat from public view meant that the only one manning the wheel was Oliver Letwin. Letwin, Cameron’s policy whiz, administrative fixer, and prominent Remainer, was left out in the open while the rest of the crew disappeared below decks.

Former Cabinet Secretary, Andrew Turnbull, gestured at the preposterousness of this state of affairs in a hearing of the Treasury Select Committee. He described Letwin as Cameron’s “consigliere” before going on to explain: “he’s spent the last six years absolutely at the heart of Number 10”. By continuing his job as chief architect of Cameron’s policy agenda, Letwin would be grabbing control of Britain’s future outside Europe, or, to put it slightly differently, would maintain ultimate oversight over No. 10’s policy program, Brexit or no Brexit. Someone who had actually campaigned to leave the EU, Turnbull urged, would be a more appropriate choice to determine the government’s policies. 

Letwin ducked and weaved around questions at the Foreign Affairs Select Committee a few days later. Responding to suggestions from Labour MP Mike Gapes that his actions were an “irrelevant fig leaf” because his policy papers were non-binding, Letwin explained that while it was not his place to “make any recommendations […] We can prepare the basis for the decision making.” In the wake of this rhetorical footwork, articles were rushed off the press suggesting that gaffe-prone Letwin was unprepared for the task – as if unpreparedness is a sign of weakness rather than strength in a time of such political indeterminacy. The curtain of British politics was briefly pulled back, Marina Hyde suggested in the Guardian, and Letwin, the “Wizard of Brexit”, was revealed as a fool “ever-upwardly-failing”.

The EU Policy Unit has carte blanche in terms of funding, hiring and decision-making.The EU Policy Unit has carte blanche in terms of funding, hiring and decision-making. Prominent Civil Service egghead Oliver Robbins is harmonising policy at 70, Whitehall. Cass Sunstein, a thinker beloved by many in the Cabinet Office for his ideas about ‘nudging’ the public in their best interest, would say that the Policy Unit is currently determining the “choice architecture” of post-Brexit politics. There are signs that a ‘Brexit Ministry’ will soon be constructed. In which case, very soon a fig leaf will be drawn over these exceptional times. Things will calm down in the meantime and we’ll all forget about the alarming state of affairs when it looked, just for a moment, as if Oliver Letwin was the only one running the country.

Letwin’s low profile led commentators to suggest that he happened, as if by sheer luck, to be “holding the baby” of post-referendum Britain. In fact, he has been the key figure in all of Cameron’s Cabinets since 2010. If a report was written in Whitehall, or a policy was to be implemented in the past six years, there were two men whose desks the paperwork would always pass over: Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, and Oliver Letwin, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. A top ex-Foreign Office official recently complained that Letwin had a habit of sticking his oar in to policy decisions that fell far outside his brief in attempts to oversee every aspect of the government’s agenda.

Perhaps it was because Letwin’s influence was so boring that the Westminster lobby rarely deigned to mention it. When personalities and parties are such fun to write about why discuss the Cabinet Office, especially when it involves such dull-sounding acronyms as the EDS (the yawningly Mandarin ‘Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat’)? Yet the person tasked by Cameron with creating all of Britain’s post-EU “multi-dimensional options papers” was the same man who wrote a book in 1988 called Privatising the World (complete with a gushing foreword by John Redwood). Surely this should have struck someone in the ‘Westminster Bubble’ as significant. As the Labour party tore itself apart, Letwin and Robbins were drawing up all the major legislative “recommendations” for Britain’s future in one of the greatest crises of British parliamentary politics since 1911, and they were doing so without any meaningful opposition and with very little by way of a democratic mandate. “What fun,” cried the hacks, “Don’t you remember the time that a burglar broke in to his house at 3 a.m. after asking to use his loo? Isn’t he the guy who dropped sensitive documents into bins in St. James’s Park? What a moron. Wizard!"

It is more than likely that all of the many dimensions of the Policy Unit’s papers will continue to be marked by Letwin’s strident neoliberalismthe Policy Unit’s papers will continue to be marked by Letwin’s strident neoliberalism, soon to be amplified by all those private-sector contractors ushered in to help negotiate the nation’s trade deals – goodbye NHS! Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn is cheerily clinging on at the head of the Labour party, reasoning that votes from his party in last year’s leadership contest trump MPs’ mandates won in the 2015 general election. Characteristically, the Tories harbour no such illusions about the nature of power in parliament. They ruthlessly destroyed the Brexiters one by one before electing Theresa May in a series of moves that must have left Andrew Turnbull scratching his head.

As he fades into backbench obscurity, Oliver Letwin can still offer some idea of the current state of play. In a book penned before his rise to power, The Purpose of Politics (1999), he concludes that “politics is civilisation's civilised method of preserving itself.” When “civilisation” is under threat, most often after some seismic international shock, politics becomes “transcendent”. Transcendence means that the distinction between politics and law begins to collapse as the very “rules and practices” of the state “become the object of politics” itself. In times of transcendence the nation ends up “enshrining itself in a state-of-its-own” Determining when to “trigger” transcendent politics is a matter of the most exquisite political judgment. For Letwin, the referendum was enough to pull the trigger. In response, the Cabinet Office became, for a while at least, a state-of-its-own.

Letwin’s judgment about the transcendent nature of post-referendum politics was not unfounded. As the results rolled in on 24th June it became clear that the nations of the United Kingdom had cast their votes on very different terms. Martin Mcguinness and Nicola Sturgeon were quickest out of the blocks, declaring that the outcome demanded a further set of referendums on Scottish independence and Irish unity. Financial markets seemed to be in free fall and a period of economic and constitutional turbulence stretched out ahead indefinitely. In response, Labour MPs saw their time to oust Corbyn. Politics was crashing towards the centre. Whitehall was in turmoil and the days and weeks that followed would be crucial for shaping any future settlement out of Europe. Reasoning that the Party needed a leader with the full support of MPs they must have reckoned that Corbyn would bow to the new political reality.

Meanwhile the Tories smoothed their tweeds, rearranged a few deckchairs and got down to the business of governing. Rather than enter into a protracted struggle over the party’s leadership, they quickly recognised where power lay. Letwin was out, Davis was in and May, the only prominent Cameronite left, took the helm. What’s more, when their manoeuvrings were over they had managed to put Labour’s supporters exactly where they wanted them: outside any ability to influence anything, arguing amongst themselves, shouting up from the streets below.

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