When he was 14, staying at a friend's house, Oliver Letwin broke the garlic press. He had been trying to crush walnuts in it. The friend's mother aptly summed up the young Oliver: 'Lovely boy. No common sense.'
At the age of 63, Sir Oliver (as he now is) has no more common sense than he did as an adolescent. But when his cack-handed experimentation threatens to break not a replaceable kitchen tool but our very system of government — and also injects yet more poison into the relationship between Parliament and the people — it doesn't matter how lovely he is as a person, he will still not be forgiven.
For that could be the effect of the amendment in his name, passed in an extraordinary Saturday session of the House of Commons at the weekend.
Sir Oliver Letwin is congratulated by anti-Brexit campaigners outside Parliament after it was announced that his Letwin amendment, which has further delayed Brexit, had been accepted
This amendment rendered meaningless the Government's attempt to pass a 'meaningful vote' on its Brexit deal, by deferring any such approval until all stages of the same deal (in the so-called Withdrawal Agreement Bill) had been passed.
Still, I can vouch for Letwin's niceness as a person. I first came across him when he was the co-editor of a joint Oxford and Cambridge university publication called Definite Article, for which I wrote.
He has always been devoid of any unkindness, still less malice. If he has fierce ambition, it is driven purely by a passion for ideas and to improve the way things work.
Unfortunately, the net effect of Letwin's intellectual tinkering in the field of politics (which he entered after a dalliance in the academic field to which he is suited) has been simultaneously sizeable and pitiful.
As a young adviser to Margaret Thatcher he was more responsible than anyone (apart from her) for pushing the disastrous idea of the Community Charge, otherwise known as the poll tax. My father, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, fought a losing battle to block the whole thing.
As a young adviser to Margaret Thatcher (left) Letwin (centre) was more responsible than anyone (apart from her) for pushing the disastrous idea of the Community Charge, otherwise known as the poll tax. My father, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer, fought a losing battle to block the whole thing
Papers released five years ago record my father warning the rest of the Cabinet in May 1985 that the poll tax would be 'completely unworkable and politically catastrophic', and describing the 'horrifying picture of the impact … a pensioner couple in inner London could find themselves paying 22 per cent of their net income in poll tax, whereas a better-off couple in the suburbs pay only 1 per cent'.
But Oliver, ever intellectual and never practical, remained seduced by the prize of abolishing the complex rates system in one fell swoop, and fought off my father's attempt to scupper the tax with the proposal that it first be launched only in Scotland, as an 'experiment'.
That turned out well, didn't it? The Scots were driven to believe that they were being singled out for special punishment by heartless Tories. Meanwhile, this led not to 'an absence of any turbulence on the English domestic front' as Letwin advised the Prime Minister, but to the riots which, more than anything else, presaged her political annihilation.
I mention this not in pursuance of any family feud (there isn't one) but to illustrate how Oliver is, despite his prodigious intellect — or rather because of it — entirely naive in the field of human behaviour.
Papers released five years ago record my father warning the rest of the Cabinet in May 1985 that the poll tax (pictured, during a riot in March 1990) would be 'completely unworkable and politically catastrophic'
This, after all, is the man who let two burglars into his home at 3am after they told him they wanted to use his loo. Good politics is fundamentally about understanding people: what makes