ANDREW PIERCE: How did Sir Oliver Letwin, the bungler behind the poll tax, become unofficial PM and the unlikely leader of a Remainer coup?
Sir Oliver Letwin is an unlikely figurehead for a parliamentary coup and ‘shop steward’ for Remainer ministers. But that is what he now is, as the backbench Tory rebel coordinating a cross-party alliance of Remainer MPs to seize control of the Brexit agenda
Such is the disdain of some Tory colleagues about Sir Oliver Letwin that they have accused him of usurping Theresa May as prime minister over recent days.
One fellow MP said that the man who began his career in Margaret Thatcher’s policy unit had ‘installed himself as a kind of jobbing prime minister’ and he asked how the MP for West Dorset could be ‘held to account in this House?’
Letwin is an unlikely figurehead for a parliamentary coup and ‘shop steward’ for Remainer ministers. But that is what he now is, as the backbench Tory rebel coordinating a cross-party alliance of Remainer MPs to seize control of the Brexit agenda.
A policy wonk rather than a politician, who feels uneasy in the company of real people, even his admirers say ‘Oliver’s a useful man to have around – provided he’s not allowed near the signal box.’
That said, Letwin has served the Tories well during his career. It began in 1983 when he was an adviser to Thatcher – and he went on to write the 2010 Tory manifesto, helping put David Cameron in No 10 and end 13 years of Labour rule.
However, the backroom brainbox behind several prime ministers with a CV full of clever fixes has been prone to gaffes.
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For example, a young Letwin hindered plans to assist unemployed black youths following riots in Tottenham and Birmingham in 1985. Shockingly, he suggested that £10million earmarked to tackle inner-city problems might end up in the ‘disco and drug trade’. He was forced to apologise when the remarks came to light in 2015.
Letwin was also one of those who devised the poll tax, replacing council rates, which was so hated it led to Thatcher’s downfall.
The Eton and Cambridge-educated 62-year-old’s post-doctoral degree is not the sort you expect of someone operating in the cut-throat world of politics. It was titled ‘Ethics, Emotion and the Unity of the Self – a philosophical examination of the eternal tension between romantic struggle and classical harmony in human affairs.’
Usually dressed in tweed jackets and thick corduroys, he hates small talk and has few friends on the Tory backbenches. Mischievously, he has been nicknamed ‘Olive’ by an Old Etonian contemporary because he’s regarded as a bit of a drip.
A young Letwin hindered plans to assist unemployed black youths following riots in Tottenham and Birmingham in 1985. Shockingly, he suggested that £10million earmarked to tackle inner-city problems might end up in the ‘disco and drug trade’. He was forced to apologise when the remarks came to light in 2015
He has twins with his lawyer wife – and once said he would rather ‘beg on the street’ than send them to the local school in south London.
‘In Lambeth where I live, I would give my right arm to send [my children] to a fee-paying school,’ he said. He was being true to his free market upbringing, and didn’t seem aware how the remark would play to people whose annual wages might not even have covered his children’s school fees.
In the last Parliament, he was asked to implement the Leveson Inquiry into Press standards. He cooked up a deal over pizzas in the office of Labour’s then deputy leader Harriet Harman which would have introduced statutory regulation of newspapers for the first time in centuries. Most fellow Tory MPs assumed that Letwin, bored with the life of a backbencher, was planning to step down from Parliament. But they suspect he stood again in 2017 with the intention of playing a key role in softening Brexit, even though his constituency voted to Leave.
In January, he irritated his colleagues again by saying: ‘I am past caring what deal we have.’
Yet everything he has said and done since suggests the opposite. Indeed, he said Brexit would ‘require the fundamental realignment of the relationship between the Civil Service, Government and Parliament.’
He added: ‘There is no way we can continue to act as though we were merely a body to which the Government were accountable; for a period, for this purpose, we will have to take on the government of our country.’
One embarrassing incident that Letwin has tried to live down was when he was caught – on five separate occasions – casually disposing of confidential Government emails and sensitive details of constituents in a public waste bin in St James’s Park. Now, much to many’s fury, he’s trying to dump the Government’s Brexit deal in the bin.
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