There was his time at the Downing Street policy unit in the 1980s, when he helped devise the disastrous poll tax. There was the time, more recently, when he shed official documents in a bin in St James’s Park. In 2001 he had to go into hiding ahead of the general election after admitting he wanted to cut £20bn of taxes, far more than his party’s official position.
In fact Letwin has so many verbal slips to his name that George Eaton at the New Statesman has a handy guide to his top 10 gaffes.
And yet the MP for West Dorset is quietly emerging as one of the most powerful figures in the coalition – a fact that is not truly reflected in his public profile.
His role as “minister for government policy” (based at the Cabinet Office) sounds like a non-job but is in fact crucial. Letwin often appears at morning meetings in Downing Street and he is dispatched hither and thither to resolve the policy arguments which are a facet of any government but are multiplied with a coalition. He attends numerous committees including the National Security Council where he stays silent apart from occasional sharp observations – which can be challenging towards prime minister. (Letwin is something of a mentor to Cameron and persuaded him to run for the party leadership seven years ago.)
When Steve Hilton was in Downing Street, there was a rival source of policy ideas, often of a blue-sky nature. The conventional wisdom is that since Hilton has departed for the US – earlier this year – the power has drained towards Jeremy Heywood, the cabinet secretary.
As Nick Pearce, former head of No 10 policy unit, once said:
“If we had a written constitution in this country, it would have to say something like: ‘Not withstanding the fact that Jeremy Heywood will always be at the centre of power, we are free and equal citizens’.”
But it is Letwin, free from the shackles of civil service independence, who seems to pop up with striking frequency in repeated policy rows. “He’s like a computer,” says one official. “He absorbs huge amounts of information and processes it efficiently. He has extraordinary capacity.”
The red tape challenge, an attempt to cut bureaucracy and unnecessary regulation, was spearheaded by Letwin. It was him – along with Steve Hilton – who first came up with the idea of the Beecroft plan which eventually erupted into a huge coalition row over its suggestion that workers could be sacked at will.
When Lords reform was dealt a blow in July – with a large rebellion by Tory backbenchers – it was Letwin who was sent by Cameron to try to find a compromise, along with Ed Llewellyn, the PM’s chief of staff.
In energy, I’m told that there have been recent jitters over whether the entire electricity market reform (EMR) shake-up (the biggest new energy policy for decades) should be revised or abandoned altogether. Again it was Letwin who has sat down with Decc officials and worked through the pros and cons of the system (which effectively subsidises renewables and nuclear) and whether it was the best way forward: ultimately he decided to keep EMR in its current form.
When a row erupted last year over changes to the planning system, it was Letwin who was tasked with dousing the flames and coming up with a revised (though not, frankly, that different) version of the “national planning policy framework”.
Ditto, the contentious health bill – which nearly cost Andrew Lansley his job – was examined in minute detail by Letwin, who went through the draft line by line; ironically he wanted to make sure it was “bomb-proof” before its publication. A different account goes as far as saying that it was Letwin (with Danny Alexander) who came up with the original proposals, rather than Lansley himself.
The rumour is that David Laws is set for promotion to a ministerial role in the Cabinet Office as a deliberate attempt to create a Letwin figure for the Lib Dems. (Although Laws is to some extent already doing much of the intellectual heavy lifting for his party.)
Perhaps it is Letwin’s style – impeccably polite, seemingly bumbling – which has allowed him to coast below the radar for so long; in reality his fingerprints are all over the coalition and its policies, for better or worse.