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29 April 2020

The political class hates U-turns, but there’s no evidence the public agrees

One argument deployed against publishing an exit strategy is it would be revised, frequently. But voters might not care.

By Stephen Bush

One of the biggest gaps between the political class and the average person is surely around the U-turn, the moment when a political party, whether in opposition or government, changes its position on the issue.

Not only are U-turns frequently the topic of critical coverage in the media, but political parties tend to deny making them, while their supporters will often try to claim that no such U-turn has taken place. Political leaders often have to be dragged into making them.

But the evidence is that U-turns very rarely harm the standing of the parties or politicians who make them, and when they do, it is often because the politician in question has waited so long.

Take the poll tax, which helped to bring about the end of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. It would have been the correct decision to U-turn when it became apparent that implementing it meant sending every adult in the country, even those who had never received any form of bill or tax in their lives, a community charge notice. It would have been the correct decision to U-turn after the initial roll-out triggered riots and strong opposition, even among Conservatives, in Scotland. And it was the right decision to U-turn when the government finally did, having lost 222 councillors, the Eastbourne by-election and the single most successful domestic politician of the 20th century in a single year.

At every point, Thatcher would have been better served by U-turning rather than pushing ahead, and the parliamentary Conservative Party was better served in 1992 by enforcing the U-turn and with it a change of leadership.

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Or, to take a present-day example: Rishi Sunak, the most popular minister in the government. He has U-turned regularly and frequently, abandoning or boosting measures that have not worked or proved inadequate on what at times has felt like a daily basis. At every stage he has been better served by U-turning rather than doubling down.

When U-turns become a problem for government, it is either, as with the poll tax, or the 10p tax rate, that the government has U-turned so late that people have already become upset about the original position, or because the government has done it so often that it is seen as incompetent.

Yet one frequent argument deployed by commentators across the spectrum about why the British government shouldn’t do what the Scottish, Welsh, French, Austrian and Danish governments have done, and publish its thinking about whether and how to ease the lockdown is that it might have to U-turn as more information becomes available.

But there is no evidence that this would matter: the only people who care that Sunak has U-turned are political partisans who either hate him, or love him and can’t bear the idea that “their side” has got something wrong. No one else cares, unless they have personally been left high and dry by his mistakes. There is no compelling evidence that the government would be harmed if it had to publicly adjust its thinking on this or indeed any issue.