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.
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.