Bruce Anderson: The rich, the poor and the Tories

Like Cameron, Letwin finds it intolerable that Britain should have such a large underclass
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The Independent Online

Oliver Letwin has the most original mind in the Commons and no MP is less likely to use a cliche. In 2003, those qualities led a small number of people to wonder whether Mr Letwin might be the best choice to succeed Iain Duncan Smith. The language of British politics had become weary, stale and flat as if designed to incite a disillusioned public to impute dishonesty to all politicians. It seemed as if Letwin might be the man to put this right by forging a new political vocabulary.

But when the question was raised with him, Oliver Letwin was witty, courteous and doubly adamant: in his loyalty to IDS and in his refusal to accept that he was a suitable leader. On the latter point, he may be right. He has certainly found another role to which he is ideally suited: that of chief intellectual and strategist. He has already indicated that he will place no limits on his party's boldness in the search for new ideas.

Naturally, this has aroused controversy. Last week, Mr Letwin gave an interview, in which he said that the gap between rich and poor was too great and that assisting the poor out of poverty would be the first priority of the next Tory government. Mr Letwin was accused of rich bashing and old-fashioned socialist redistribution which even the Blair government had forsworn.

His remarks gave rise to confusion, dismay, even a little rancour - and Oliver Letwin was delighted. Many other politicians would have summoned a spin doctor to sedate the discussion. Mr Letwin sent for yule logs to build up the fire. He was determined to make a crucial point.

In 1964, Alec Douglas Hume was widely derided, rather like John Major in 1997. The Tory Party was discredited while Harold Wilson seemed young and dynamic: more parallels with 1997. But Sir Alec won 43.4 per cent of the vote, a figure that the Tories have only twice exceeded in the subsequent years. Over those years, political demography has moved decisively in the Tories' favour. Home ownership, share ownership, the decline of trade unionism and the manual working class; if Douglas Hume could exceed 40 per cent, his successors should have been well into the 50s.

The Tories' failure to exploit their demographic advantage is the most interesting phenomenon in recent British political history. Oliver Letwin believes he has an explanation. Throughout most of those years, the Tories have been seen as the party of the rich and greedy, only in politics to protect their friends' interests. So long as the Labour Party was led by Michael Foot or Neil Kinnock, this was not fatal to the Tories' prospects.

In most elections, the man with no heart will defeat the man with no head. But as soon as Labour could claim to be a party of the sensible centre, the Tories were in trouble.

Lots of comfortably off voters would like to cast their ballots in a way that makes them feel good about themselves. They want to express their concerns for the environment, small furry animals, lonely old grannies et al. They do not want to think of themselves as people who will vote solely in their own financial interests; they want to lay claim to a higher political morality. When Labour allowed them to do that without having to endure higher rates of income tax, they deserted the Tories en masse.

Oliver Letwin wants them back. This does not mean that he intends to "clobber the rich". But he believes the rich - by which he emphatically does not mean those who find themselves paying tax at 40 per cent - can look after themselves. They need nothing more than benign neglect. The poor need the help.

Like David Cameron, Oliver Letwin finds it intolerable that Britain should have such a large underclass. He knows the answer to the underclass's problems does not solely lie in more money. That could merely add to the dependency culture, and thus increase helplessness and hopelessness. Some of the answers to the underclass's misery lie in Thatcherite remedies, such as deregulation to encourage small businesses, and therefore new jobs.

Oliver Letwin would not claim to have the answer to the problem; if he did, it would not be anything like so serious. But he is determined to devote the Tory Party's intellectual and moral energies to the underclass question. David Cameron agrees. Despite occasional appearances to the contrary, Mr Letwin is not naive, nor incapable of political calculation. He is convinced that virtue will bring its own electoral reward. If the public see the Tory Party as a caring party, it will at last be able to exploit the demographic advantages which it has not been able to enjoy.

To those who were alarmed by the interview, he has only one message. You had better prepare yourself for many repetitions.