As the Conservative Party faithful look on in admiration expecting to see the next Margaret Thatcher in office, what echoes around the chambers of the House of Commons is the phrase “The Lady’s not for turning”. Whatever else is made up by the Tory propaganda machine they can’t repeat this one!
Remember all those Prime Ministers question times when David Cameron attacked Gordon Brown for being indecisive? Remember all those Tory press conferences attacking Gordon Brown for not making decisions quickly enough?
Well true to his word, David Cameron’s Premiership has not been dogged by indecision, but rather quick decision making followed by a slow drawn out change of mind and having to reverse that decision either wholly or partly.
Remember all those Tory Party snipes at the labour Party for being control freaks? Of course we know that David Cameron has let his hand picked ministers go off and formulate policy, and then found that he has had to over rule them when he realised, at the last minute, that their ideas wouldn’t work and they didn’t do their homework.
Being in opposition is a lot easier than being in government, and if we needed any evidence of this, then look no further than the Coalition government of the past 12 months. The Conservatives became a naval gazing, opportunistic, opposition party, who took 10 years to finally pick a leading candidate as much like Tony Blair as they could find in order to win an election.
So what are we left with? Is David Cameron the U-Turn Prime Minister?
If we look at the evidence it is quite remarkable that his personal rating is as high as it is, far higher indeed than the ratings of either the coalition or the Conservative Party itself. As we discussed here with Is this the most dishonest UK government since 1945? the Conservative Party went into the 2010 General Election with pretty much a completely different manifesto than they have enacted.
Promises prior to the 2010 election
- The promise that they had no plans for a VAT rise
- David Cameron gave assurances that he believed in EMA and it was safe, shaking hands with the electorate re-assuring them face to face
- There would be no change to Family Allowance
- No Top down changes and re-organisation to the NHS
- Sure Start would be safe in their hands
- They would build more prisons and constantly attacked the Labour government for not doing so
- No one working in a bank should get more than a £2,000 bonus
- Quango’s should be got rid of to make government more accountable, and cost effective
- Anonymity for Rape victims
- NHS Direct would be scrapped
- Weekly Rubbish collections was stated as a crusade for localism by Eric Pickles
- Any one found carrying a knife would have a prison sentence
Following the election things turned out very differently, very quickly. The result was not only u-turns on the above, but also in some cases, double u-turns! Quite remarkable.
- VAT announced would rise to 20%
- EMA announced would be scrapped. Then another U-turn as they sought to claw back some credibility as they recognised that the figures they trotted out were not all together correct. see here David Cameron performs partial U-Turn on EMA
- Family Allowance scrapped for some of the middle class
- The biggest changes announced to the NHS since 1945 – then a second U-Turn as they attempt to water down the proposals to placate a public outcry. Another double U-Turn
- Sure start funding scrapped and then a double u-turn as they keep some funding but is lower than needed and David Cameron continually misleads the House of Commons by quoting a budget that is not just for the Sure Start programme
- Prison building stopped and announced the cutting immediately of 3,000 prison places
- Banking wages and bonuses continue to rise, and in no way reflect risk, productivity or profits
- The bonfire of the Quango’s becomes more of a flickering spark as they realise that many of the quangos actually do a job, for very little money. Yet they go ahead and bannish a third of the quangos which the Commons Public Administration Select Committee criticised and stated “in the short term the reorganisation will now cost more than it will save. This was put together on the hoof and can be much improved for future reviews.” see Bonfire of the Quangos
- Anonymity for Rape victims was rejected
- NHS Direct kept, but the phone number changed!
- No sentencing provision for knife crime
- No weekly collections to be re-instated as it is too expensive
Then the list continues as the 12 months in office has continued
13. Cuts to Coastguard funding – deemed too dangerous and amount of cuts reduced
14. Housing benefit cuts watered down due to certain MP’s in the south east having the “jitters”
15. School milk to be cut – then predictably reversed due to the Thatcher experience
16. David Cameron’s personal photographer put on the taxpayers pay roll, after derision of Ed Miliband asking questions about it in the commons, taken off the pay roll and admitted as a “mistake”.
17. The Forests Bill
– a massive mistake as Caroline Spelman makes a complete mess of the bill, brought forward on ideological grounds and taking on the middle classes in the Conservative heartlands. Bill completely abandoned
18. David Cameron announced the massive reduction of special advisers and a big criticism of New Labour – reverses decision as policy making and publicity becomes too difficult without them.
19. Criminal Justice Bill to reduce sentences by 50% to save money abandoned after complete embarrassment.
20. School Sports Partnerships stated to be cut, but funding then re-instated at a lower level as they were found to actually work
21. Quangos again – this time, as we discovered at Prime Ministers Questions last week, the Prime Minister is about to triple the amount of quangos in the NHS – there will now be more quangos than there were prior to the Coalitions election
22. The Foreign policy was principally a travelling salesman’s act until the criticism over Libya, and now David Cameron is a Liberal Interventionist convert.
So what should we make of the Prime Minister’s U-Turns. There are various arguments for this.
1 – The Coalition argument – this dictates that there are more U-turns because of there being a coalition and the clash of minds when putting together policies. This would account for some changes, but not by any means most and certainly not the big ones. My analysis of the above U-turns, I would say 14%. The principle intervention may have been with the NHS reforms, however, this in itself was a U-Turn by Nick Clegg who in an interview with Andrew Marr at the beginning of the year stated that the NHS reforms were actually a Liberal Democrat policy!
The second and third arguments can be discussed in tandem –
A Listening Prime Minister Vs A U-Turn Prime Minister
There is certainly some truth to the idea that David Cameron is a Listening Prime Minister and is a reason why the Prime Minister’s status has remained high in the polls. People perceive a lot of the U-turns as the Prime minister doing the right thing and listening. There is no doubt that some of the decisions he has made in the U-turns have been based on pragmatism so in part I would agree with this point of view. Indeed I have expressed this view with the Forests for example on this site.
However, there is a tipping point in any changing of minds, when a considered approach that constantly has to back track looks like incompetence. That tipping point is about to be reached.
I am somewhat surprised it has taken as long as it has and could have disastrous consequences in the future. There is only so many times a Prime minister can be seen to be back tracking on important policy. It leaves ministers deflated or weakened and creates enemies. If we look at Andrew Lansley as a case example, he now looks like a political figure dead in the water. A trusted key member of the government has been decimated by criticism and scrutiny. It defies belief that he could have been in the job as shadow health secretary and Minister for Health in government for a total of 7 years and yet come up with proposals that split the public and clinicians. He also failed to bring his plans to the attention of the public in the entirety of the 2010 general election.
This was complete incompetence and was politically underhand at the same time. A corner stone of government policy that have the finger prints of both Conservative and Liberal politicians on it following Nick Clegg’s interview, show’s a lack of policy detail and competence.
There are many aspects of the list above that are small fry, but what it shows is that David Cameron has a poor team around him that he trusts and has fostered in opposition. They lack expertise and are bad at the policy detail.
Some of the U-Turns also show a principle of dishonesty that runs through the grain of the government. The promises on VAT, EMA, Family Allowance, Prison Building, Sure Start, Bookstart, MUST have been decided prior to the election and not just U-turned afterwards. This was a DELIBERATE DECEPTION of the British people.
The biggest deception however was the NHS reforms as announced by Andrew Lansley. We were assured no Top Down re-organisation and David Cameron went out of his way to assure the public and NHS workers that the NHS would be safe under the Conservative party. Yet now, almost every week, we are subjected to the same speech by David Cameron to assure the public that the NHS is still safe in his hands following the revealing of the biggest shake up of the Health service since 1945, that will cost a whopping £4 billion to implement. Dishonesty??
What is the real worry however, is that David Cameron is politically savy and knows he cannot afford another big U-Turn – yet more U-Turns are surely ahead. A big issue could well come up in the following few months or years that will be politically unpalatable to make, thus boxing the government in when they need manoeuvrability.
This could well be the economy. With almost every statistic showing the economy in stagnation and austerity measures only now about to bite, a policy shift may be essential to stimulate growth. If the government boxes itself into a corner this could damage any ability for the economy to recover.
It is too early to tell if the “U-Turn Prime Minister” tag will stick with David Cameron, but it is not looking good. It appears clear that he is being let down in his day to day government policy making by those around him, but in the end the buck stops with him.