Simon Carr: Sir Humphrey is alive and well and talking in riddles in the House

Sketch: This thing Mr Letwin calls transparency is what we know as "speaking clearly". It's not his first talent
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The Independent Online

"And I commend the statement to the House," Oliver Letwin said. "What statement?" we asked ourselves. "What had he said? And why did he keep saying: "We are a government, not a magazine"?

The Labour-leaning Speaker accused him of having been a philosophy tutor – a pointed intervention, as Letwin's statement was beyond common understanding. Listening to him reminded us why the Tories didn't win a majority. Remember what they sprung on us on 6 May? The big idea was big citizens in the Big Society – but no one could understand how, what or when. Now have a combined power and horizon shift replacing targets with a transparent monthly milestones framework to avoid micromangement by micro-men. And you know why? Yes, because the Coalition is "a government not a magazine".

That was the only soundbite of the day; the only concise, concrete, factual remark that had obvious meaning. Oliver would shudder at the vulgarity of a soundbite. But it has its advantages over his blethering, election-losing wiffle-waffle.

Edward Leigh said the "Sir Humphrey language disguised the need for change" that would only happen when "schools, for instance, had the right to hire, fire and admit pupils". Letwin remained in the intellectual uplands, saying that radical structural change will disperse power from the centre to parents, patients and citizens. They will do this by publishing information (yes, mashable data!) and by requiring departments to publish their performance against monthly milestones.

I think it means: departments will be required to publish reasons why they are failing to do what they said they were going to do. Well, good luck with that.

When Oliver looks in his mirror, he sees the biggest obstacle to the plan's success. To make these political projects work, they need to be comprehensible to large numbers of people – and to be brutally enforceable.

This thing he calls transparency is what we know as "speaking clearly". It's not his first talent.

What happens, he was asked, if departments fail to meet a monthly milestone? He said: "Some things we said we'd do but haven't done because we were doing something else would be done differently."

When pressed, he was more specific. Delinquent departments would find themselves faced with a series of "inconveniences" and a "meeting with the Prime Minister". In the past decade it would have been the Editor – but Oliver isn't on a magazine. If he were, he'd be subbed out of existence.