Oliver Letwin: Streetwise Tory begs to differ with claims of eccentricity

The Monday Interview: Shadow Home Secretary
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The Independent Online

Blue and white striped pyjamas hang on the back of the bathroom door. A stray pair of grey socks is lying about, the type schoolboys wear. These are tell-tale signs that Oliver Letwin, the shadow Home Secretary, has come to stay.

Mr Letwin, aged 47½, was once seen in striped pyjamas arguing with robbers outside his London home. "What's the matter with striped pyjamas?" he asks incredulously. "Doesn't everybody wear pyjamas? I think it's completely normal."

But what seems "completely normal" in the genial world of Oliver Letwin is not normal elsewhere. The amiable Tory MP became a victim of crime after inviting two strangers into his £800,000 London house at 5am because they said they wanted to use the lavatory. The men promptly robbed him.

These days Mr Letwin is more streetwise, a matter that causes him regret. Frontbench politics has cost him some of his schoolboyish innocence. He no longer stops to help strangers stranded on the motorway or invites people into his house, for fear of the consequences. "If people ask to go to the loo now at five in the morning, I will not let them in," he says.

Mr Letwin is trying "very hard not to live up to the image of the eccentric". But events are conspiring against him. The Tory party's most imaginative thinker was pilloried last week for admitting he would rather go begging than send his children to a London state school.

His local comprehensive in Lambeth was furious and there were thinly veiled suggestions that the Eton-educated Tory was an elitist. These he rejects, and likewise dismisses sug-gestions that he wants to avoid Lambeth schools because of the high proportion of children for whom English is a second language. "I couldn't care less if they are full of immigrants," he says. "Of course there are problems the Lambeth schools will have with that, but the issue here is lack of choice."

Mr Letwin also denies he wants his children to go to top public schools because of family tradition. "I couldn't care less about that. My parents went to absolutely ordinary tax-funded schools in Chicago," he says.

Yet the Conservative MP for Dorset West, one of the country's most idyllic seats, squirms as he tries to explain precisely what it is about Lambeth schools that would drive him to go begging to avoid them.

"I believe the children there do not have a chance equivalent to that which children in west Dorset schools have or which children in independent schools have," he says. "I am not just talking about dry as dust results in a particular examination. I am talking about whether their minds are trained."

Mr Letwin's voice grows shriller and more urgent as he defends his proposition, insisting the issue is "academic standards and the discipline and orderliness of the school", not state education. "Wherever you go you will be among people who vary from saints to sinners, he says. "I was among people at Eton who I believe have ended up in jail."

One of Mr Letwin's friends at Eton who did not was Charles Moore, who stood down as editor of The Daily Telegraph this month to write the authorised biography of Margaret Thatcher. She was an early mentor of Mr Letwin, and remains his political heroine. As a twenty-something aide de camp of the former Tory prime minister, Mr Letwin invented the poll tax, a policy he now admits was a "total disaster".

The shadow Home Secretary is not afraid of proposing radical and sometimes outlandish solutions to serious problems. These include suggesting paedophiles be fitted with satellite- tracking devices.

Mr Letwin drew cries of amazement last week when he unveiled plans to send asylum- seekers to "faraway" and "poor" places such as Papua New Guinea to be processed. St Helena, where Napoleon was sent, was mooted as an option, but it does not have an airport. Mr Letwin is not short of engaging ideas. In fact, he is brimming with innovative policy solutions. The trouble is, he admits, no one has heard of them. "We have a pretty solid, coherent, alternative programme. Now we are left with one task, making the population, six of whom have so far heard of it, turn into 60 million or 30 million who have heard of it."

Mr Letwin thinks the answer to the party's fortunes is to promote its new policies, not to cast the leader adrift. "It isn't an accident that he leads and we have a coherent programme." The splits and plotting dogging the Tories have been "very, very, damaging", he says. But he rejects suggestions that the plotters, who are to be disciplined this week by the Tory Chief Whip, should be thrown out of the party.

"It's time for the Conservative Party to realise our problem is not the leader. It is our willingness to be led," he says. "I think some of my colleagues imagine if there were X [number of] weeks between now and the election it would be a good idea for everyone to try being leader for a week."

Mr Letwin believes the plotting will peter out by Christmas and Iain Duncan Smith will lead the party to the general election. Two years ago, Mr Letwin said it would be a "miracle" if the Tories won the next election, but he is now prepared to place a modest bet on a Conservative victory. Much of this is due to Tony Blair's fall in popularity and the desire among voters to "place faith in what is straightforward".

Mr Duncan Smith's "determination and guts" - as opposed to Mr Blair's "charm", which is increasingly now seen as phony - are what the electorate are after, he says. Mr Letwin launches a heroic defence of his embattled leader and in his enthusiasm stops just short of comparing him to Churchill. His theory is that you do not need charisma, brains or charm to be a successful Tory leader, if you have the mettle.

"The great merit of Iain is he is the exact opposite of Blair," Mr Letwin says. "This charisma stuff is junk. I don't actually think that in running the country well, as opposed to badly, charisma helps you one iota. What you need is to be solid, strategic, honest and determined. Our great prime ministers have not been great intellectuals. Winston Churchill had colossal charisma but it wasn't what made him into a great leader. It was his guts."

The trouble is that many people think the sparky and clever shadow Home Secretary has more leadership qualities than his boss. One national newspaper asked readers to fire off an e-mail if they thought Oliver Letwin should lead the party. But Mr Letwin dismisses such talk abruptly.

"That is a very silly e-mail," he says. "Whatever happens, under any circumstances, I would never put my name forward as leader of the Conservative Party. Never. I mean never. I can do without the hassle."

The CV

BORN: 19 May 1956;

EDUCATION: Eton, Trinity College, Cambridge (MA, PhD);

STATUS: Married to Isabel Grace; twins, son (Jeremy John Peter) and daughter (Laura Shirley);

CAREER: Visiting research fellow Princeton University 1980-81;

Research fellow Darwin College, Cambridge 1981-82;

Special adviser Department of Education and Science 1982-83;

Member Prime Minister's Policy Unit 1983-86;

Director N M Rothschild and Sons Ltd 1991to present;

MP (Conservative) Dorset W 1997 to present;

Opposition frontbench spokesman on constitutional affairs 1998-99;

Shadow Financial Secretary to the Treasury 1999-2000;

Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 2000-01;

Shadow Secretary of State for Home Affairs 2001 to present;

Made Privy Councillor 2002.