Sir Oliver Letwin: ‘Dorset has a real serenity’
PUBLISHED: 12:39 20 October 2020 | UPDATED: 12:44 20 October 2020
@ 2020 Peter Yendell
The former West Dorset MP talks about his parliamentary career and how, after 22 years, he finally feels part of the fabric of our county
Having been re-elected to represent the constituency of West Dorset six times, it could be assumed that Sir Oliver Letwin was always the fortunate holder of a safe seat. However, at the beginning of his tenure in 1997 it felt anything but, as he explains when I visit him in his home near Beaminster, a sun-filled medieval longhouse surrounded by roses, clematis and a 360-degree view of rolling green hills.
“There’s a theory that you ought to choose your constituency on some deeply rational and systematic basis,” he says. “But actually, it was memories of happy times spent in Dorset that largely influenced me to apply. And in those early years it was always touch and go whether I’d be re-elected. There was a very strong Liberal show and little Labour to dilute the vote.”
As a child, many of Sir Oliver’s holidays were spent on Purbeck, while his wife, Isabel (currently the Legal Director of the Ministery of Defence) spent equally happy times in Lyme Regis. The couple married in 1984 and, together with their two children, lived for their first five years in Dorset in a small cottage in Kingcombe.
“I certainly feel that after 22 years I’ve mixed my blood with the place and we’re here to stay,” he tells me. “But it’s a love affair rather than an origin. Shortly after we arrived, I met a lady with whom I found myself slightly lost for conversation. So I asked how long she’d been in Dorset, she drew herself up to her full height, and answered, ‘700 years’.”
Sir Oliver retired from being an MP in 2019 and the emotional cost of pitting himself against much of his party through his Letwin Amendment is obviously still deeply felt. “The whole year was just very difficult and unfortunate,” he admits. “I loved Parliament. At its best it’s a good place to talk things through seriously, and it’s generally a courteous and sensible place. When a really profound dispute occurs it’s like a civil war, and finding yourself in opposition to people you’ve been working with for years and years is very difficult.”
He’s also aware of the real anger felt within his West Dorset constituency. “It was divided on Brexit, and also whether we should leave without a transitional deal. What was particularly difficult was that those who were angriest were some of those who’d been most supportive. But if you’re in Parliament and something is happening that you think is going to be really bad for your country, you have a duty to try and stop it.”
He dismisses my suggestion that what he did was brave. Nor did he worry for his safety – despite receiving a number of threats. “At various points in my life I’ve actually been under attack. Not least when I was working for Mrs Thatcher and we were hit by the Brighton bomb. Also, on the occasions I have been the subject of one, nobody warned me in advance. My feeling was that if somebody wrote to you with a threat, this probably meant they weren’t actually going to do anything.”
One of the things Sir Oliver doesn’t miss is what he describes as “the complete flood of unending 365-days-a-year correspondence.” He calculates that he received roughly 20,000 emails and letters a year, and his determination to answer each one individually meant between two and three hours of dictation every day, “at very high speed, to a very accomplished secretary.”
When I ask whether any issue was too small to warrant an individual response, I’m surprised by his emphatic no. “Towards the end of my time as an MP there would be these mass campaigns where you’d get 350 identical emails. So, for those I had standard responses. But if anyone wrote to me individually, I tried to reply personally as that’s what my constituents deserved.
“It’s an interesting question: what an MP does vis-à-vis their constituents, because they don’t actually run anything. Of course, if they’re Ministers (which he was for six years) they are involved in running the country. But that’s not to do with your constituents specifically; you have a duty not to favour them.
“As well as attending meetings and talking to people, one of the practical things we can do as an MP is smooth the way for people who are hitting rough patches regarding bureaucracies. Sometimes problems arise from the fact that no-one sufficiently senior and capable of imagining beyond the stock answer has looked at the case. So, if you can pierce the barrier, then you may get to a decision maker who will look at it afresh. You can’t bend the rules, but you can get them applied in a more sensible way.”
He gleefully recounts a story about the Passport Office, where, having received a steady trickle of letters regarding a delay in passports being returned, he wrote to the then Home Secretary, Theresa May. She reassured him there wasn’t a problem as the target for passport turnaround was being met. However, a quick straw poll in the lobby of the House of Commons revealed that other MPs were experiencing the same issues. “I knew that either the stats were wrong, or they didn’t mean what they thought they did.”
To shorten a long - and funny - story, it turns out that the target was being met, but that all the passports that didn’t make the cut were being put on a pile; never, it seemed, to be revisited. “It was a repeated pattern we found in the bureaucracies,” he cautions. “That if they got behind, their behaviour was governed by targets and self-protection; as opposed to the human needs of the people left sitting in the pile.”
That’s all very well, for the man who was known as Mr Fix It to send his Cabinet Implementation team out to solve a national problem. But would he intervene in a local hedge dispute? He pauses. “I have been involved in hedge disputes, water disputes, neighbourly rows. If it was the sort of thing where no public body was involved I’d try and find someone in the council or a mediator to resolve it. My office also worked very closely with organisations like Citizens Advice. We’d bat things back and forth: me opening doors, them arguing the details then passing it back to me to ensure the detail was absorbed and acted upon. It was a very productive relationship.” Despite him looking the picture of health and relaxation, I suspect that retirement from Parliament doesn’t now mean a life of tennis, country walks and socialising – although he loves doing all of those things. “I still do a great deal of things every day. I have various Visiting Professorships; I’ve just sent a book off concerning international relations with China and I am writing another regarding the West’s strategy with India.”
His fifth non-fiction book Apocalypse How: Technology and the Threat of Disaster was published in March. When I ask whether he’d ever envisaged a global pandemic as an equal threat, he recalls how pandemic flu was at the top of the national risk register when he was doing the Government’s resilience reviews.
“I was told that I didn’t need to worry, for it was the one thing they had really prepared for. What I didn’t have the wit to ask was whether there was some other kind of pandemic not listed. But then, actually the whole world missed it, which shows just how difficult it is to spot the right thing.”
With all his experience in disaster management (including working to prevent the spread of Ebola), does he wish he was still in Government? “I’m very glad not to be involved, I know just what it feels like and it’s very, very difficult.
“Although, the pandemic has brought out the inherent strength of many communities, and nowhere has this been more apparent than in Dorset. Where national systems were unable to bear the load, you’ve seen a flowering of local solidarity. Luckily, community projects like village shops were already on the increase. Combined with an increasing interest in localised food, I think they will become the way of the future, rather than a thing of the past.”
He goes on to tell me about Thorncombe’s community-run cafe and shop. “The idea was formulated many years ago, at this very table – and it has been a great boon; alongside the plethora of other things the village does. During lockdown it provided a lifeline. It’s also played an important part in bringing people within the village together; many of us regularly take a turn in serving behind the counter – myself included.
“Dorset has a real serenity, but there’s also this thick texture of social relationships. As an MP, I was always concerned that we should continue to have a vibrant economic and social life; preserving farming, agriculture and tourism, alongside growing things like our food and hi-tech industries.
“One positive of Covid-19 is that it’s shown how we can remain in one place physically and still be connected with the rest of the world. And, given the beauty of the county - where I’ve been lucky enough to work and live - it’s extraordinarily pleasant to now have more time to enjoy it.”
Apocalypse How?: Technology and the Threat of Disaster is published by Atlantic Books at £14.99