Cameron’s ten biggest U-turns

Including free milk, the VAT rise, rape suspects and Cam Cameron, the prime ministerial photographer

With the coalition's decisions to abandon its forest sell-off (Caroline Spelman has just told the Commons: "I am sorry. We got this one wrong") and to drop plans to impose a 10 per cent cut in housing benefit on the long-term unemployed, David Cameron's fondness for U-turns is finally receiving the attention it deserves.

Up to a point, policy reversals aren't significantly damaging for a government. They suggest a willingness, in the words of Tony Blair, "to listen and to learn". But an excess of U-turns reveals a government ignorant of public opinion and unable to communicate its policies.

Cameron's U-turns include broken election promises and policy reversals in government. Here are some of the most striking.

1. VAT rise

In an interview with Jeremy Paxman on 23 April, Cameron said: "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."

VAT was later raised from 17.5 per cent to an all-time high of 20 per cent in the emergency Budget.

2. Child benefit cuts

At 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." The coalition went on to abolish the benefit for higher earners in the Spending Review.

3. Non-abolition of the 1922 Committee

Cameron's plan to allow ministers to become full members of the Tory backbench committee – the equivalent of the management joining the trade union – was watered down after 118 MPs rebelled. Ministers are now permitted to attend meetings, but have no say in electing the executive.

4. Free milk

The health minister Anne Milton suggested scrapping free school milk for the under-fives to save money, but Downing Street retreated after Cameron was (entirely predictably) compared with Margaret Thatcher. The policy confusion led to the absurd scene of David Willetts defending the plan on The Andrew Marr Show while No 10 briefed that it had been dropped.

5. Bookstart

A case of government by celebrity. Ministers were primed to remove funding for the scheme, which provides free books to young children, but flinched when accused of "gross cultural vandalism" by Philip Pullman and Andrew Motion.

6. School sports

Michael Gove's plan to withdraw funding for the 450 school sport partnerships (SSPs) attracted the ire of assorted Olympians, headteachers and Labour MPs. Gove soon capitulated and agreed to provide £65m to promote sport in schools and £47m to keep the SSPs going until summer 2011.

7. Anonymity for rape suspects

A surprise inclusion in the coaliton agreement (it wasn't in either the Conservative or the Lib Dem manifesto), the government's plan to grant anonymity to men charged with rape was dropped after campaigners warned that it would lower reporting rates and pander to the view that women make false allegations.

8. Cameron's personal photographer

The PM's decision to add his personal photographer and videographer to the public payroll was never likely to go down well in these straitened times. On the day the royal wedding was announced, No 10 said that it had thought again.

9. NHS Direct

Andrew Lansley's plan to replace NHS Direct with a cut-price "health advice service" prompted a wave of #savenhsdirect tweets and another John Prescott campaign. The Health Secretary soon backed down and promised that only the number would change.

10. No cuts to front-line services

As absurd as it may seem, Cameron told Andrew Marr the weekend before the general election that a Conservative government would not cut any front-line services.

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.

So, what's next? The smart money is on the government watering down its NHS reforms. The "mad" decision (in the words of the British Medical Journal) to introduce the biggest upheaval in the service's history, just when the NHS is required to make unprecedented savings of between £15bn and £20bn, will return to haunt the coalition.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.