The coalition: Compulsive u-turners or good listeners?
06:30 30 May 2012
In 1980 Margaret Thatcher levelled a steely stare on the Conservative conference audience before uttering the unforgettable words, “the lady’s not for turning”.
She spoke as speculation mounted that her government would perform a u-turn on tough economic policy introduced after the 1979 election. Yet her single-minded resolve swept away opponents and proved two things.
Firstly, it showed that with resolute determination difficult political decisions could be forced through regardless of opposition.
Secondly, it demonstrated that often sticking to your guns is seen positively by the electorate. Do it too much and of course people will say you are not listening, but the damage from that impression is small compared to being labelled a ‘flip-flopper’.
Fast forward 32 years and we have the coalition; accused by its opponents of u-turning more than any other government in recent memory.
Notable examples before this week include environment secretary Caroline Spelman’s plan to sell off parts of public woodland, which led to cross-party backbench annoyance and was doomed when The National Trust weighed in against it.
Also in 2010, health minister Anne Milton wrote to colleagues suggesting a scheme giving free milk to children was “expensive” and that it would be necessary to axe it.
Downing Street spotted the political land mine, a similar policy once led to the nickname ‘Thatcher the milk-snatcher’, and Ms Milton had to stand down.
There were others on plans to axe money for school sports, on cuts to the coastguard, on scrapping the office of the chief coroner and most recently on the variant of Joint Strike Fighter that the government would buy.
Labour spin doctors yesterday put the total number of u-turns at a dubiously high 32. A more arguable case could be made for saying there have been between 20 and 25.
This week there were two claimed u-turns on measures introduced in the budget to alter VAT on Cornish pasties and caravans, both which sparked campaigns when announced.
But Treasury minister Chloe Smith, the MP for Norwich North, disputed whether the VAT changes were really u-turns at all.
“Considering that the budget announced a consultation, and that a consultation ought to mean a consultation, I think that this is actually a case where the government has listened and put improved policy in place,” she said.
“It’s overplaying it somewhat to say they are u-turns. These are improvements to policy that address concerns raised by the industries in question.”
She added: “It’s good the government has listened.”
Other Conservatives point out that a u-turn denotes a full reversal, but there will still be 20pc tax charged on cooked pies and pasties that are kept hot, just not on those that are still warm after coming from the oven.
Meanwhile there will still be VAT on the sale of static caravans, but only at 5pc rather than the original 20pc highlighted in the budget.
A similar argument could be made for the other alleged u-turn that emerged this week; consisting of changes that would allow legal cases to be heard in private when evidence from spies was being presented.
There will still be the option to hear cases in private, put inquests will now be exempt and a judge rather than a politician will make a decision when it happens.
The Tory MP for South Norfolk Richard Bacon said he was personally “extremely delighted” the government had altered its plans for VAT on caravans.
He pointed out that lively public debate and policy alteration was more likely when a coalition, which by its nature has to find compromises, is in power.
He went on: “These changes are something every government goes through. The way in which it is presented depends on how the government is perceived more widely.
“If it is doing well a change may be presented as a government having listened, which is most often the case. But if it is going through a bad patch a change will be presented as a u-turn.”
He added: “An individual item by itself makes little difference but a collection takes a toll if the government starts to be seen as one in retreat.
“To avoid that the government needs to be clear when it’s in a consultation, and make clear there is nothing wrong with asking people to give their views of policy before it’s set.”
Coalition defenders also argue that ministers can hardly be accused of being in retreat when they have relentlessly pursued an ambitious debt reduction plan.
Yet in light of that, perhaps the most ironic potential u-turn is the one not so apparent at first sight; that as a result of the changes to VAT on pasties and caravans the national deficit will now be £65m a year bigger.