The strangely parallel lives of Oliver Letwin and Ed Miliband

The similarities between the pair are uncanny enough to warrant the ‘Twilight Zone’ theme

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The Independent Online

Encouraging him to write anything is probably an arrestable offence – if it isn’t it bleeding well ought to be – but I have an idea for a new Jeffrey Archer novel.

To be honest, there are two problems. First, I think he has written it already as First Among Equals (though you doubt he’d see that as a major obstacle). And second, the proposal has a serious flaw (again, not necessarily a barrier to his lordship). But for what it’s worth, it concerns two rival politicians, born on the same day in the same place, who grow up to become eerily precise political mirror images of each other, before a shock general election result raises one to a position of great power and demotes the other to a humiliated irrelevance.

The flaw in this tale, which is drawn directly from life, is that Oliver Letwin was not born on the same day as Ed Miliband, but more than 13 years earlier. That apart, the similarities are uncanny enough to warrant the Twilight Zone theme.

Both were born into Hampstead intellectual immigrant families who fled persecution (Miliband’s parents from the Nazis; Letwin’s grandparents when the Ukrainian pogroms lost their initial charm). Both cleaved to gentrified versions of their parents’ purist ideology, Letwin’s American mother Shirley being about as far along the Ayn Rand right as the self-declared socialist Ed’s father Ralph was along the Marxist left.

After Oxbridge, both taught in the Ivy League (Letwin at Princeton, Miliband at Harvard), became a special adviser to a palpably mad PM (Letwin to Thatcher, Little Ed to Gordon Brown), and were given safe seats. Both are out and proud Jewish atheists. And both, while reportedly relaxed and witty in private, tend toward the stiffly gauche in public.

As paradigms of the modern technocratic politician, neither (as fools like me who admired Miliband can now state with nauseating knowingness) is cut out for leadership. Yet only one of them was smart enough to follow the philosopher Callahan’s injunction. “A man’s gotta know his limitations,” Dirty Harry muttered to a con, shortly before unloading his bullet chamber into his head.

Miliband, who heard destiny’s summons to reshape the nation, didn’t. Letwin does, and his contentment to stay in the background has paid off handsomely. David Cameron not only gave him full Cabinet rank in the post-election reshuffle, but has put him on every Cabinet sub-committee (the cabals where the important decisions are thrashed out).

Most significantly, Letwin becomes chair of the Home Affairs Committee, which deals with almost every non-economic aspect of domestic policy. The PM has put him there, and everywhere else, to ensure that on such sensitive issues as immigration and Muslim extremism, his will is done. Letwin, the first senior Tory to back Cameron’s leadership bid, has been a loyal adviser ever since. Having played wise Nestor for so long, his reward is a role pioneered by the above-mentioned Inspector Callahan. A man who likes to lob classical quotes into conversation may deploy aperçus from Horace and Homer in place of the .44 Magnum, but somehow Letwin has become The Enforcer.

It’s always a thrill to find an Old Etonian bucking the socal mobility trend by getting on in this depressingly egalitarian age, though whether Letwin is well cast as Whitehall’s Dirty Harry is another matter. Cameron evidently thinks so, and who could question the personnel judgement of the genius who hired Andy Coulson and elevated Grant Shapps to party chairman?

Certainly there is no questioning the acuteness of Letwin’s political antennae. The massively popular poll tax which did his heroine Thatcher a power of good (“Each man kills the thing he loves,” to borrow from Oscar Wilde) was his brainchild. His championing of £20bn in welfare cuts before the 2001 general election – an idea ahead of its time – was such a hit that he had to go into hiding. Ten years later, he told Boris Johnson that “We don’t want more people from Sheffield going on cheap holidays” (not believed to be a reference to the ski chalet-owning Nick Clegg, his predecessor as Home Affairs Committee guv’nor).

Remembering some of the other fiasci that have punctuated his career – dumping constituents’ correspondence in a public bin; telling a private meeting in 2004 that the NHS would cease to exist within five years of a Tory government – Cameron’s perception of Letwin as his safest pair of hands seems optimistic.

Then again, no one survives for as long as Letwin has without political smarts, and his journey from passionate Thatcherite to arch moderniser was daintily executed. And, again like his Bizarro World equivalent Ed Miliband, he does appear to be that Westminster rarity – a sane and decent human being. You will remember his generosity in admitting a couple of self-alleged incontinents into his London flat for a pee in the early hours, if not his bravery in chasing them down the road in his pyjamas to reclaim his credit cards. We used to rent a cottage in his West Dorset constituency, and the locals were exceedingly fond of him.

For all his otherworldly eccentricity, no one doubts the quality of Letwin’s intellect. But the cleverest thing he has ever done is know his limitations and be happy with the obscurity of the backroom boy. When Miliband made his awkward return to the Commons on Monday, perhaps he glanced down on him from the opposition benches with envy and new respect.

Even so, reflecting on Letwin’s track record as a blunderer, his rise to become Cameron’s enforcer begs some questions for the Prime Minister. Do you feel lucky? Well, do you, punk? Or are you raving mad?