One of the greatest advances for personal freedom in the last twenty years was the rise of the low cost airline. Suddenly, thanks to Ryanair, Easyjet and their many imitators, European travel was transformed from the rare luxury of the few into something almost everyone could enjoy, often two or three times a year. The range of destinations opened too, as smaller airports Bydgoszcz, Montpellier, Beziers, Wroclaw, Kaunas, Riga became part of regular flight schedules. This in turn enabled people to buy properties in parts of Europe which, hitherto, they had barely realised existed. And with flights so cheap they could visit their second homes regularly, enjoying with their family and friends the glorious escapism which comes of owning your own special realm in another country remote from the cares of quotidian existence.
Sure the cheap travel boom had its downsides, for no social and economic advance is without its side effects. Obviously Prague, Riga and Wroclaw could live without the drunken stag parties (though possibly not without the boost they have afforded the local economy); and no one is pretending that Ryanairs Michael OLeary is Mother Teresa, nor that a crowded EasyJet flight is the last word in sophistication. But you would need a really warped sense of priorities to argue that the disadvantages of cheap air travel outweighed the advantages, let alone that it is something which should be actively discouraged.
Yet bizarrely, disgracefully, this is exactly what one of David Camerons ministers is reported to have proposed. According to the excellent Iain Martin (formerly of this parish), the minister in question is Eton-educated former merchant banker Oliver Letwin. And his remarks have prompted a row with London Mayor Boris Johnson.
Boris Johnson has had a blazing row with a Tory Cabinet minister who privately told the London Mayor that the Government doesn’t want people flying abroad on holiday.
Johnson told a ‘People’s Question Time’ event: ‘I was absolutely scandalised the other day to hear a government minister tell me he did not want to see more families in Sheffield able to afford cheap holidays.
Absolutely disgraceful, a bourgeois repression of people’s ability to take a holiday. It is a matter of social justice.’
Who was the Tory minister concerned? Impeccable sources tell me it was Oliver Letwin, the Hampstead-born minister of state at the Cabinet Office, ‘leading Cameroon thinker’ and former investment banker.
Once again we see Boris positioning himself as the ideological conscience of the Conservative party. Im not suggesting he doesnt also believe this stuff: Im sure he does, with a passion. But politically it makes sense too for Boris understands clearly, as his party leadership apparently does not, the Conservative party in Britain is in dire, dire trouble. And the root of this malaise is precisely this mix of snooty remoteness, intellectual woolliness and odious wetness exhibited by senior party figures like Oliver Wetwin.
Wetwin, let it not be forgotten, is not some random pillock on the fringes of the Tory party. He is the Prime Ministers key policy adviser. If somebody that influential cannot understand why trying to clamp down on cheap holiday flights (as indeed the government is doing: through the swingeing eco-taxes imposed on air travel) is inimical to Conservatism, then truly the Tory party is doomed.
One of the reasons Margaret Thatcher was so successful was that she understood what it means to aspire to a better life. If youre Oliver Letwin (or indeed a baronets son like George Osborne, or indeed David Cameron) you dont need to worry about such things: youve had it all handed to you on a plate already. But to Thatcher, the kind of snobbery that suggests that only people with chalets in Gstaad (like Nick Clegg) or homes in Tuscany (eg Polly Toynbee) should be able to afford to fly abroad regularly would have been total anathema.
One of the key tenets of Conservatism is a desire to set people free: free of the shackles of the state, free to forge their own destiny, free to spend their money on as many exciting new opportunities as a burgeoning market is prepared to offer them. This is also how economies grow: by harnessing the mightily powerful urge most people have to improve their own lot and create an even better world for their children.
Oliver Letwin is not the only senior Tory who completely fails to understand the point of conservatism, but he is probably the most egregiously misguided.
The only consolation here is that David Cameron is unutterably ruthless. If he believed for one fraction of a second that his political survival lay in ditching the wets in his party and rediscovering his true inner Tory, he would do so in a trice.
As Martin argues earlier in his article, while Cameron is busy grandstanding over Libya, his domestic policies are falling to pieces. Not only is the Coalition under threat, but Camerons brand of managerial, Heathite faux-Conservatism too. I still fancy Camerons chances because, beneath that plausibly charming veneer, hes a principle-free thug. Thats why, I suspect, sooner or later hes going to be forced to do the right thing.
And one of those right things should definitely be this: sack Oliver Letwin.
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