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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.