Page last updated at 07:51 GMT, Friday, 18 September 2009 08:51 UK

Manifesto man: Oliver Letwin

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

As if there were any doubts about his modernising credentials, the first thing Oliver Letwin does when we meet is remove his tie.

Oliver Letwin
Oliver Letwin was an early convert to the Cameron cause

The Conservative policy chief had been half-expecting me to show up at his office with a camera crew - and he cracks a broad grin when I tell him he can stand easy, it's just me and a tape recorder.

It is not the last time during our 45 minute conversation that I will be transported back to the early days of the Cameron project, when open-necked shirts - and sunny optimism - were the order of the day.

The general election, which must happen by June, now looks likely to be dominated by a bitter row about public spending cuts and how to reduce Britain's £750bn budget deficit.

David Cameron has swapped "let sunshine win the day" for gloomy warnings of an "age of thrift".

But Mr Letwin, now ensconced in a green armchair in the corner of his office, a few doors from Mr Cameron's own Parliamentary office, firmly denies that the recession has forced Team Cameron to ditch its original policy agenda, which was based, in part, on "sharing the proceeds of growth".

'Bigger bang'

He insists their central theme of transferring power from the state to the individual and communities and of achieving "progressive ends through Conservative means" (he admits slogans are not really his thing) remains intact - and that the next manifesto's tone will be "upbeat". He also claims the social reforms contained in it are recession-proof.

"We began this whole exercise on the assumption that the changes we wanted to make to improve schools, improve hospitals, improve the way we do welfare, or get prisoners out of drugs and crime and into the mainstream, any of these major reforms, had to be done right from the beginning without spending any extra money.

TORY MANIFESTO TITLES
William Hague
2005: The British Dream
2001: Time for Common Sense
1997: You can only be sure with the Conservatives
1992: The Best Future for Britain
1987: The Next Moves Forward
1983: The Challenge of Our Times
1979: The Conservative Manifesto

"And, indeed, although the main purpose of these reforms is to improve these things, one of the ambitions has been throughout to make sure that by getting 'bigger bang for the buck' with our schools or our welfare system or whatever, we also, over time, gradually reduce demands on the taxpayer."

But he also concedes that Shadow Chancellor George Osborne's first priority, if the party wins the election, will be to sort out the public finances and reduce the deficit.

"Our structural reforms while they will, over time, we believe, both improve things and reduce demands on the taxpayer, will not make things cheaper quickly.

"So we also need... to manage the public finances very carefully for the first few years to make sure that while these structural reforms are embedding and progressively reducing long-term demand on the taxpayer, we also can get through the financial crisis that the government has left the country with."

Mr Letwin was an early convert to the Cameron cause and claims to have worked out a detailed programme for government even before his friend was elected party leader in 2005.

Weighty tract

He is at pains to point out that he is not solely responsible for writing the next manifesto, that it is "the work of many hands" and his role is to "act as a sort of midwife, to help gel these things".

He has also promised that unlike Michael Howard's 2005 Conservative manifesto, a slim document which Mr Letwin, who was shadow chancellor at the time, admits was hastily put together during a period of profound "turbulence" in the party, and even Margaret Thatcher's landmark 1979 manifesto, which was equally short on detail, it will be a weighty tract, a "blueprint for power".

"It is a document that has benefited from a great deal more planning and thought than we have been able to do in the past," he says.

"If, like us, you have been in opposition for quite a long time, you learn what it is you need to do. And we have learned by previous mistakes."

The higher the likelihood that you might find yourself in government, the more effort that you put in to trying to make sure that you really have bottomed out what the problems will be
Oliver Letwin

The process began with an 18 month "open" policy review, with contributions from non-politicians, followed by 12 shadow Cabinet Green Papers, with a "few more" to come, on subjects including schools, housing, local government, international development and the voluntary sector.

"On the way we have had many ideas which as we have tested them we have had to reject and it's always sad to see what looked like a good idea die when you subject it to enquiry and scrutiny," says Mr Letwin.

He refuses to say whether the manifesto will include a detailed list of the cuts in public spending David Cameron has said will be needed to balance the country's books.

'Well-advanced'

At the moment, all the party has said is that health spending and foreign aid will be protected from cuts. Everything else, it seems, is up for grabs.

"Much will depend on how much the government has revealed about the state of the books and its own plans," he says, adding that it is a matter for George Osborne and his shadow Treasury team, who are working on a separate economic plan.

Mr Osborne has complained that he is being denied access to information he needs to draw up his policy proposals but Mr Letwin does not seem unduly worried by this.

"I don't think there is any sign at the moment of the current government allowing us to see the true state of the books. Whether they wholly know what the true state of the books is themselves is another question."

There is, however, a steady stream of information going in the other direction, he reveals, with the briefing of Whitehall officials on what the Conservatives plan to do if they win power - a privilege granted to the opposition in the run up to all elections - "reasonably-well advanced now".

A team headed by Francis Maude have been handing policy papers to civil servants as they are produced.

"We have said to civil servants 'We need you to begin thinking about how you could implement it if we are elected to government and we need to be able to discuss with you so that we can explain the thinking behind these policies'," says Mr Letwin.

Labour's mistake?

He seems to believe it is more important for the manifesto to lay out a clear blueprint for what the Conservatives will do if they win than to actually persuade people to vote for them. He does not expect the manifesto to be widely read by voters.

"We don't expect everyone on every bus and every tube train to be sitting reading and poring over the details of our policy papers and manifesto. That never happens.

"But, for our own purposes, in order to know how to conduct a government that will get Britain back into better shape, mend the broken society, rebuild the broken economy, do something to improve our broken politics, if we are trying to achieve those major aims, for our own purposes, we need to be pretty clear what steps we will take."

He says he is determined that the party does not repeat what he sees as New Labour's biggest mistake, when it came to power in 1997.

"My feeling is that Blair came into power with many good intentions but for several years wandered around in the mists trying to work how on earth to deal with things like schools and crime and hospitals and so on, and not really having very much idea.

"And by the time anyone had worked out things that they would like to do there were already all sorts of other difficulties, partly because of the management of the economy. We can't afford that kind of delay."

Packing the manifesto with policy detail will also free up Mr Cameron and his frontbench team to concentrate on articulating the party's vision during the election campaign, he argues.

He is at pains to stress that no one in the party, least of all himself, is taking victory for granted, that anything can happen between now and polling day.

But when pressed, he concedes that it feels more real this time around.

"The higher the likelihood that you might find yourself in government, the more effort that you put in to trying to make sure that you really have bottomed out what the problems will be and how you will deal with them and we have, therefore, put an enormous amount of effort into this."


Here is a selection of your comments:

What is the point of a political party writing a manifesto? Why do they waste their time and money? Don't people recall the case involving Stuart Bower, a United Kingdom Independence Party member? He bought a case against the Government in the County Court because of the broken manifesto promise by Labour that there would be a referendum on the EU Treaty.

He accused the Government of a breach of contract, but it was ruled that a manifesto was a political act not covered by law. Apparently, it was a long-establish part of the English common law that political manifestos do not create legitimate expectations!

This means that political parties have no obligation to uphold manifesto promises - the can, in effect, lie to get our vote and there is no legal redress if they then do completely the reverse of their manifesto pledges.

Hence, a manifesto is as worthless as a Northern Rock share!
Stuart Robb, London

Oliver Letwin seems to 'set out the Tory stall' quite well, but I do not see why there is a Tory refusal to cut Foreign Aid. Surely, it is not as important as internal spending such as on the NHS, welfare etc?
A potential Tory voter, The Scottish Borders

In the current economic climate David Cameron needs to reconsider his pledge not to cut overseas aid. Charity begins at home and many of these countries squander the aid money sent to them. Better to withold it when the Conservatives come to power and when the deficit is cleared or greatly reduced look again at restarting overseas aid but at a lower level to now.
David Brazier, Princes Risborough, United Kingdom

All sounds like diligence, competence, commonsense and a brought about by as solid team effort - bring it on please.
Annie B, Bingley, West Yorks, UK

I'd like to see what could be done to improve discipline in education - certainly Labour's endless spending on "bleeding heart" style mentors in schools does nothing to stop an unruly pupil.

I suspect we need something like the cane - not necessarily corporal punishment, but something equally simple, cheap, and effective that is unpleasant enough to condition the real nasty ones away from a life of crime.

Andy R, Sheffield

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