Jayne Dowle: This misguided Minister has insulted the North... and we will not forget it

IT was only a matter of time before a Tory minister said something stupid and alienated pretty much everyone north of Watford.

I was getting quite excited last week when Universities Minister David Willetts managed to affront working-class men and middle-class women in the same sentence.

But that comment about educated girls being responsible for male unemployment – which must have gutted any bloke made redundant from a mine, steelworks or shipyard in the last 30 years – was mild when compared to Cabinet Office Minister Oliver Letwin’s gaffe.

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He not only insulted the people of Sheffield, but scored an own goal right in the Deputy Prime Minister’s backyard.

If it wasn’t so depressing, it would be quite funny. Because when Letwin messes up, he clearly does it in style, as befitting a man who once charged the taxpayer £2,145 for replacing a leaking pipe under his tennis court (he later repaid it under the MPs’ expenses inquiry).

So to whom did he chose to make his reported private comment – that he didn’t want “more families in Sheffield able to afford cheap holidays”? None other than Boris Johnson, the Conservative Mayor of London, and his fellow Old Etonian.

Mr Johnson, you will remember, knows all about opening mouth before engaging brain. He’s still paying penance for accusing Liverpudlians of “wallowing” in their “victim status” following the outpouring of collective grief at the beheading of civil engineer Ken Bigley in Iraq in 2004.

You couldn’t excuse Johnson, especially as – inevitably – he brought the Hillsborough disaster into that particular tirade. But you can almost forgive him, because he has made a career out of acting the buffoon.

We can also content ourselves with the knowledge that he is safely out of the way in London, so any other stupid things he says won’t bother us much up here.

Unless of course, he decides to run for something bigger in the Tory party, a rumour which surfaces with increasingly regularity and one which the cynics amongst us might suspect may not be unconnected to the timing of this particular revelation about the hapless Letwin.

Because, of course, it came right on the eve of the Government’s big push to tackle social mobility. And when you think that Mr Letwin, member for West Dorset, Old Etonian and millionaire, is responsible for co-ordinating coalition policy across government, well, it doesn’t look good, does it? Especially when that brief includes public spending cuts.

Even Mr Clegg, whose mild demeanour does not suggest the capability to handle himself in downtown Sheffield on a Saturday night, has suggested that his Cabinet colleague “wants to tread with care” if he visits the South Yorkshire city.

At least it takes the pressure off Clegg a bit. But the point is it is highly unlikely that Mr Letwin would ever find himself in the middle of Sheffield having to defend what he said. If he did manage to get there, it would be to some fancy official reception, where he would never be in danger of encountering any real people with whom to discuss holidays, cheap or otherwise.

For individuals like Mr Letwin, the North is an abstract concept, glimpsed only on television dramas, or when a news crew descends on a beleaguered town to report about benefit cuts.

The fact that there might be – shock – people living here who aspire to a decent kind of life, even to taking holidays, obviously fills him with confusion. But really, it’s a waste of energy to hate him.

You might as well just pity him, and hope that the next time he jets off to Klosters or St Kitts, or where ever it is millionaire Cabinet ministers take their jolllies, he gets severely stranded by an ash-cloud.

On the evidence before me, I have to agree with Denis MacShane, the Labour MP for Rotherham, who said that Letwin’s ill-judged and ignorant remarks simply prove that he and his colleagues hold the North in the same contempt as previous Tory governments. For all the coalition’s bluff and bluster about the Big Society, nothing has changed. Indeed, if anything, it’s got worse.

Social mobility, to return to the theme of the week, has done nothing but decline since the 1980s. And the policies Mr Letwin’s Government is overseeing, especially the rise in university tuition fees, will do nothing whatsoever to reverse this.

What an insult, not just to card-carrying Labour supporters, but to all the Conservatives in Yorkshire, many of whom presumably voted for decent Tory MPs who actually live here and have some understanding of what the North is all about.

The sad truth is that Mr Letwin will simply shrug off the brickbats. He’s that kind of politician. People like us don’t actually matter to him. Believe me, he won’t care that half the MPs in the Commons are up in arms, because there but for the grace of God go the other half.

By this time next month, he will have forgotten about it. But, as Nick Clegg knows only too well, the people of Sheffield, and of the North in general, never forget.