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28 August 2020

Why does the government keep making such bad policies?

There have been so many U-turns that it might be quicker to explore when ministers don’t change their minds.

By Jonn Elledge

“Is Jonn Elledge the real PM?” my editor suggested, when we were talking about possible headlines for a piece on the Boris Johnson government’s enthusiasm for U-turns. (I assume he was joking, but hey, I need an intro.) His reasoning was that we could cite not one, but two, different things I had thundered about in recent weeks, on which the government almost immediately changed its line.

Exhibit A. In early July, face masks were theoretically compulsory on public transport and in healthcare settings. Yet not only was the government refusing to extend these rules to cover England’s rapidly reopening retail and hospitality sector: cabinet ministers were frequently going about their business, or occasionally waiting tables as a publicity stunt, with no face covering to prevent them from breathing all over any hapless passers-by. 

I used these pages to express my bafflement about this; mere days later, face masks were suddenly compulsory in England, with fines threatened for non-compliance. Score one to me.

Exhibit B. A fortnight later, I asked why the government hadn’t extended the rental eviction ban in England and Wales. Once it expired, housing charities warned, some of the estimated 200,000 private renters who had fallen into arrears owing to the pandemic were almost certain to be out on the streets.

But then, in the nick of time on 21 August – two days before it was due to run out – Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick bravely overruled the statements put out by his own department hours before, and announced that the eviction ban was to be extended by four weeks. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, cometh the U-turn.

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On two occasions I said that the government should do something, and then, as if by magic, it did it. Hmm.

Far be it from me to reject the call to serve my country, or to miss an opportunity to promote myself like the publicity hungry monster I clearly am, but I think there’s a problem with my editor’s suggested headline: so many U-turns has this government made of late that I suspect it’s mathematically impossible to write about politics on a regular basis without accidentally predicting a few of them. A more appropriate headline might be, “Is Jonn Elledge a stopped clock?” 

What seems to have happened in both those cases is that it became clear that the government’s first line was going to get it into trouble so it changed its view. In the case of the masks, as Ailbhe wrote at the time, the shift “seemed to be more swayed by public opinion than ideology”. (It was also, she noted, not clear it had actually changed its line, so much as belatedly realised that it should actually have one.) Regarding the eviction ban, my suspicion is that public mood mattered less than the very real possibility of an enormous and avoidable spike in homelessness in the middle of a pandemic. Because while this government may often be stupid, it isn’t stupid.

And there have been, remember, so many other U-turns that it’d almost be quicker to start looking for explanations when ministers don’t change their minds. This month alone, there was the U-turn over the near-universally loathed attempts to guess what grades A-level students would have achieved in exams they never took, based on how past cohorts did, which, now I write it down, is clearly an insane thing to do. Not only was it obvious this U-turn was going to happen: it was obvious that it had literally already happened, in Scotland, the previous week. And yet, right up until the moment the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, U-turned, the entire government maintained it wasn’t going to.

That led, sharply and inexorably, to another U-turn – lifting the cap on the number of places universities can offer. That was obviously going to happen too, because universities habitually over-offer on the assumption that not everyone will get their grades. And without a system to show that a pupil teachers confidently believed to be a straight A student would actually achieve ABB, suddenly everyone did get their predicted grades, and there was no other way out of the mess.

Then there was the refusal to fund free school meal vouchers over the summer, until Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford conducted such a visible campaign to extend them that the Prime Minister was left with no choice but to pretend that he’d not even noticed the furore, but would nonetheless change the policy. 

There was the centralised track and trace system which security minister James Brokenshire maintained “gives you better visibility on where there might be hotspots”, right up until the point when the government scrapped it for the phone-based system used by most of the rest of the world.

There was the exclusion of NHS support staff from the Home Office scheme which grants families of health workers indefinite leave to remain in the UK if they die of Covid-19 – a stance which lasted exactly 32 minutes after Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden had said it was under review.

On each of these policies, the government has stuck to its line, right up until the exact moment when it decided to do the exact opposite. That the government is willing to U-turn when it makes mistakes is a good thing: ministers should listen to the public, and it is better to end up with a good policy than to stick stubbornly to a bad one. But when U-turns become an almost weekly occurrence, one has to ask: why exactly does this government keep making bad policies in the first place?

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