- 10:59 am, Wed 27th Jun 2012
Mrs Thatcher told us the lady was not for turning and from most people got credit for it. It was a pivotal moment in establishing her image as a figure of steely determination even if her actual philosophy in Government was usually to leave herself a route out of difficult situations. When she was incapable of doing that over the poll tax it helped finish her.
Tony Blair, in a very different context, told his party he had no reverse gear. This was not an exact parallel of the Thatcher speech. He was talking more about the direction of the Labour Party as New Labour, but again, in reality in Government, of course he made tactical retreats of one kind or another.
This Government has taken the u-turn to a new level. As Ed Balls pointed out yesterday, we have had U-turns on pasties, caravans, skips and now petrol. The Chancellor’s budget has been shredded week by week. The Government’s argument is that these are all small beer, however embarrassing and that on the big picture of deficit reduction they are still on track. Except yesterday’s borrowing figures were also worse than expected. The attempt to ring fence these u-turns from the strategic picture is looking threadbare.
So when are u-turns justified and when do they become a problem?
Every government will sometimes have to change course. Whatever the promises made, the art of staying in power involves a calculation about the price of the pain incurred by a change relative to its importance. So, for example, Tony Blair was willing to wade through a lot of political pain to introduce tuition fees because he really believed that in a world of greater participation in Higher Education, those who benefited had to make a contribution. In that case, he calculated the gain of the reform was worth the pain of getting it done.
At other times this calculation will be different. Opposition might be greater than expected. For example, Gordon Brown’s initial response to the furore over the abolition of the 10p tax was to tough it out, but soon he was forced to come up with a compensation package for those affected.
In judging u-turns there is a difference between tactics and strategy. Strategic u-turns are much more dangerous than tactical ones. That’s why no matter how many tiny pieces the Chancellor’s budget gets broken into, Ministers repeat the mantra that what really matters is the deficit.
However even tactical u-turns have a cost. When a number come together, as they have done recently, it makes a government look incompetent. And indeed when a Government has to do so many u-turns it is incompetent. However many times the Prime Minister says, “I’d rather listen and change my mind than plough on regardless” he must know his Government looks a shambles, particularly in the key area of economic management.
Then there is the Education Secretary. Now I am not one for defending the status quo in education. Too many people fail under the current system and too much opportunity is denied to pupils who don’t fulfil their potential. The system has to change to expand opportunity for people not getting it at the moment. So the issue is not reform or no reform but what kind and what will its effect be.
Last week, the Daily Mail floated a seemingly well informed story that the Secretary of State would reintroduce O levels and CSEs. The Secretary of State, called to parliament but light on detail, basked in the story, saying there had to be change and claiming to be a Blairite on this issue. However, his changes were roundly denounced by education Blairites such as Andrew Adonis and Conor Ryan who champion change which addresses lack of opportunity rather than change which reinforces it. And the sepia tinted world the Secretary of State for education seems attracted to isn’t Blairite anyway. Our former Prime Minister has little time for nostalgia.
This week the Education Secretary was in retreat, saying he didn’t want a two tier exam system after all. In that case, what was the point of the last week? What may have begun as a piece of positioning has ended up in another u-turn – disowned by the champions of the politics the Secretary of State claims to admire.
Finally, Chloe Smith. I don’t know her at all but on a personal level after her shredding on Channel 4 news and Newsnight I feel sympathy with her. I know from experience that it is the lot of a junior Minister to do (I shall put it politely) some of the less glamorous aspects of Departmental work. But when the PM and Chancellor have cobbled together a u-turn on a hot topic that even the Transport Secretary didn’t know about, it is pretty cowardly to send out a junior Minister with no answers to defend the position. She is probably rueful today, but the people who really look bad out of this are her bosses.