The former Cabinet minister on his party’s way forward—and the chances of George Osborne making a comebackby / November 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
“What is the present purpose of the Conservative Party?”
Shortly after Oliver Letwin reached the Commons in 1997, a strip of dark blue in Blair’s red tsunami, he typed this question onto an empty Word document. He was grappling with the existential crisis of being an opposition backbencher for a party pummelled at the polls. He had spent a little over a decade trying to get into the House of Commons, to get closer to power. And yet when he arrived, the Conservative Party had none. He wanted to know what the Tories needed to do to win it back.
The answer to his question was provided by David Cameron. Letwin served Cameron during his 2005 leadership campaign and later in government, as Minister for Government Policy in the Cabinet Office. The modernisation Cameron espoused, fully supported by Letwin, was rewarded with two general election victories.
But a chasm seems to separate those days from the last two years. The Conservatives have lost whatever momentum they had under Cameron, having ditched the modernisation programme entirely. Brexit has thrown the party into chaos. They have a party leader and prime minister in name only, and are drifting rudderless towards opposition—and prime minister Corbyn.
So this was a good time for Letwin to publish his new book, Hearts and Minds. Despite his years as a senior politician, the book is not a transcription of diaries, but a thesis on what the Conservative Party should be. He kindly agreed to discuss it with me—along with the state of British politics today.
What he wants to tell the party is that it should hold its nerve with Cameron’s social liberalism, despite the setback of Brexit. The leader who does this will not be Letwin. “I have had my turn—and very much enjoyed it.” But he is less sure about whether or not Osborne could return. “He might or he might not. He’s much, much younger than me. There may at some point be a call for a younger man, and it might be him.”
He tells me that the flurry of populism that dislodged Cameron and thus his own politics off course is a “temporary phenomenon.” “If we hold our nerve, social market liberalism can re-assert itself. The enemies of it from far left and far right will I think go back into their boxes.” He believes that these populist movements, from Steve Bannon and Donald Trump in America, to the AfD or Podemos on the continent, to Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, do not represent a seminal shift in the political debate. “I do not think there is a profound new set of ideas around now that is causing the movements to far right and far left. They are almost bereft of any kind of serious intellectual underpinning. What you’ve got is just reaction to events, and populist movements, not serious alternative ideologies.”
“There may at some point be a call for a younger man, and it might be him”—Letwin on George Osborne
But if Letwin believes that the forces behind populism are temporary, does it follow that the forces behind Brexit will burn out? Is it wise to pursue exit from the EU? “I do not think that it is a blip. I think that it was a decision made in a referendum that you can’t just do and undo every day of the week. Anything that threatens the basis of our democracy would be a catastrophe.”
Brexit has forced some adjustments to his theory. The nature of the argument must change. “The rhetoric on things like migration—from Blair to Cameron—was wrong,” Letwin said. “Many of us have now learned that it is important we change that.” Usually when a Tory MP says this, it means they think Blair and Cameron should have clamped down harder on immigration. But Letwin’s view is slightly different. “We need to make the argument that migration is intrinsically a good thing for our society providing that it is sensibly controlled, rather than portraying it as an evil that needs to be kept at bay.”
Letwin sees Corbyn as the “polar-opposite” to Cameron, Blair, Major and Thatcher. “Corbyn wants to take us right back to a pre-Thatcher way of running things. We need to therefore make again the arguments that we never thought we would need to make again: the argument for the free market as the engine of property that can deliver redistribution of income to give you social justice and first rate public services.” The time-worn, socialist arguments offered by Corbyn mean that, in Letwin’s view, it is much clearer now than in 1997 what the Conservative Party has to do.
While Letwin does not think he will take a leading role in the party ever again, Hearts and Minds shows that he has no plans to stop contributing. He is currently, with like-minded MPs, drawing up a series of broad policy papers that engender the social market approach he recommends for the party in the book. Early next year, he will also start a project which aims to increase the west’s understanding of the rising powers of the east. “They have a much deeper understanding in India and China of the west than we currently have of them.”
The Conservatives are currently implementing a policy despised by the young, and the party is somewhat toxic for this age group. To start the arduous journey of turning this around, Conservatives could start with reading Letwin’s book.