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 Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide