The three biggest Cameron U-turns

The Tory leader’s U-turns on VAT, child benefit and spending cuts.

Following the coalition's decision to guarantee funding for Bookstart (having pledged to end state support), the Telegraph's Benedict Brogan notes that David Cameron is becoming a master of the political U-turn.

He cites ten examples, including free milk, school sports, the non-abolition of the 1922 Committee and the "cast-iron guarantee" to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Yet even Brogan's list doesn't begin to cover Cameron's policy reversals. Here are three of the biggest U-turns that he forgot to include.

1. VAT rise

There are just eight days to go until VAT rises from 17.5 per cent to an all-time high of 20 per cent but, as recently as the election campaign, Cameron was still insisting that the Tories would not raise the tax.

Here's what he told Jeremy Paxman in an interview on 23 April:

We have absolutely no plans to raise VAT. Our first Budget is all about recognising we need to get spending under control rather than putting up tax.

Before that, in April 2009, Cameron promised he would not raise a tax that "hits the poorest the hardest". He said:

You could try, as you say, to put it on VAT, sales tax, but again if you look at the effect of sales tax, it's very regressive, it hits the poorest the hardest. It does, I absolutely promise you. Any sales tax, anything that goes on purchases that you make in shops tends to . . . if you look at it, where VAT goes now it doesn't go on food obviously but it goes very, very widely and VAT is a more regressive tax than income tax or council tax.

2. Child benefit cuts

The coalition's surprise decision to abolish universal child benefit attracted the anger of several Lib Dem ministers. And with good reason. During a pre-election Cameron Direct event, the Tory leader issued this "read my lips" pledge:

I'm not going to flannel you, I'm going to give it to you straight. I like the child benefit, I wouldn't change child benefit, I wouldn't means-test it, I don't think that is a good idea.

But with the Treasury warning that the plan to end the benefit for all higher-rate taxpayers is "unenforceable", Cameron may yet be forced to perform another U-turn.

3. No cuts to front-line services

On the weekend before the general election, Cameron memorably told Andrew Marr that a Conservative government would not cut any front-line services. He said:

What I can tell you is, any cabinet minister, if I win the election, who comes to me and says: "Here are my plans" and they involve front-line reductions, they'll be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again. After 13 years of Labour, there is a lot of wasteful spending, a lot of money that doesn't reach the front line.

But with front-line police facing cuts, an 80 per cent reduction in the university teaching budget and, today, new warnings of NHS cuts, Cameron's claim has quickly unravelled.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad