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.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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