The donnish shadow chancellor may look most at home surrounded by dusty tomes, but he's all for rewriting the book when it comes to the civil service. He talks to us about modernisation, decentralisation and, er, oysters.
Oliver Letwin has emerged as a vital cog in a Conservative party machine that, after much coughing and spluttering, has finally whirred into life. Whether you put it down to the government's U-turn on the European constitution referendum, the resignation of Home Office minister Beverley Hughes or the Tories' attack on inefficiency in the public sector, the opposition is at last scoring points over the once all-powerful and dominant New Labour. When shown a recent Building column penned by former Tory party chairman Alistair McAlpine predicting a victory for the Conservatives in the next general election, the shadow chancellor's response is telling: "It's the first time in 10 years there's been a serious chance of that."

Letwin, who rose to his current position with the accession of Michael Howard to the party leadership, exudes an intellectual gravitas that has rarely been detected in the Tory party, or Westminster generally, in recent years. Step into his parliamentary office and you could be forgiven for believing you were in a university lecturer's room preparing to discuss Berkeleian metaphysics or the great novels of the Victorian period. The rather cramped, dark and fusty room deep in the bowels of the House of Commons is clearly far more suitable for Letwin than a shiny glass-flanked office in nearby Portcullis House.

The 47-year-old Letwin is appropriately donnish in attitude throughout the interview, taking his time to construct long and cogently argued sentences and giving the impression that he actually thinks about the questions asked rather than offering well-honed, pat responses. Polite and well spoken, he also displays a sharpness that has been recently embarrassing the normally statesmanlike chancellor, Gordon Brown.

He had little difficulty cutting to shreds this interviewer's opinions on why the troubled channel tunnel operator Eurotunnel should receive a government hand-out. And although he can appear a bit smug and has been prone to the occasional gaffe – he once declared he would rather beg than send his children to a local comprehensive school – his approach of actually agreeing with government policy if he feels it is right is quite refreshing.

The huge Treasury apparatus and culture of targets has militated against effective delivery

We have heard the phrase joined-up government; in actual fact it’s an enormous spaghetti diagram

Letwin on ...

… the PFI
Is PFI value for money? I think that’s the wrong question … Where there is a genuine transfer of risk – the whole management has really been transferred to the private sector and the public sector has stopped trying to interfere – there will be a more timely and cost-effective product

… Treasury interference
There has been too much interference in the past six years … It was a bad mistake and one of the reasons why a great deal of tax raised has not improved delivery. The huge Treasury apparatus and culture of targets has militated against effective delivery

… procurement
There are about 100,000 people in Whitehall who are involved in procurement and buying. That’s an astonishing figure. I’d be surprised if our report didn’t recommend assembling a greater skills base in one place

…Gordon Brown and Tony Blair
The Treasury has tried to make policy on everything. It has led to the chancellor effectively being the prime minister and Blair being an unusual kind of foreign secretary

… the Civil Service
Departments need to act like well-functioning commercial operations … We need to create in-house something that’s a constant irritant in the oyster, which creates the pearl