25/Jul/2014 - Last News Update: 21:52

Are government U-turns really a 'sign of strength'?

Category: Politics

Published: 21st Jun 2011 16:16:07

Another day, another government U-turn. Or should that be "climb-down"? Or "rethink"?

Or, perhaps, as David Cameron would have it, a well-thought-out response to the legitimate concerns of the public and experts in the field?

The prime minister has hit on a novel formula, showcased again on Tuesday in his announcement on prison sentencing, for dealing with accusations he has committed that most heinous of political crimes.

Rather than desperately trying to pretend it was something he had intended to do all along and the changes were all in the small print of the bill anyway, he says the U-turn is a "sign of strength".

He has yet to cross the Rubicon entirely and proudly reclaim the phrase for politicians everywhere.

We are still a long way from a minister being able to stand up in the House of Commons and announce their latest policy U-turn.

Indeed, government ministers and spin doctors still spend a large part of their working week denying policy rethinks qualify as U-turns.

Justice Secretary Ken Clarke was the latest minister to go down this route, when he was doorstepped by journalists outside his London home on Tuesday morning.

Mr Cameron may feel he has little to choice but to try to turn a negative - the perception the government is floundering - into what feels like a positive.

Ken Clarke: "It's not another U-turn, it's a perfectly balanced package of radical reforms"

Only a government firing on all cylinders, he says, would have the self-confidence to listen to criticism, pause, reflect and come back with an improved set of proposals.

And he is "proud" to lead a listening government.

If this is the case, this must be one of the most self-confident and responsive governments in history.

Recent months have seen alleged U-turns on everything from school sports, privatisation of forests, the NHS, weekly bin collections and now prison sentencing.

With the exception of the revamp of planned changes to the NHS in England - which saw a major piece of legislation stopped in its tracks and sent back a few squares on the legislative grid - these are all middle-ranking issues.

And the coalition has not done the one U-turn its critics say would really matter - on the economy.

But this has not stopped Labour leader Ed Miliband accusing Mr Cameron and his ministers of failing to think policies through before springing them on the world.

Others say Mr Cameron has taken an overly "hands off" approach to government, allowing his ministers too much freedom to come up with policy ideas.

There is certainly a recognisable pattern to the coalition's alleged U-turns.

They tend to begin with a minister stumbling into a storm of tabloid criticism about some proposal or other and end with Mr Cameron - in full listening mode - taking personal charge of the policy.

But do the public actually care?

Mr Cameron's polling may be telling him voters are not particularly bothered if the government does a U-turn as long as it gets the policy right in the end.

And they do not want a prime minister in the Margaret Thatcher mould, ploughing on seemingly impervious to criticism.

In fact, it was Lady Thatcher who is probably more responsible than anyone for cementing the term "U-turn" in the British political lexicon.

The term took off in the early 1970s, when then Prime Minister Ted Heath had to dump his entire market-based economic policy in the face of soaring inflation and rampant industrial action.

Lady Thatcher and her supporters on the monetarist wing of the Conservative Party never forgave him.

She took her revenge a few years later when, faced with a similarly desperate set of economic circumstances, she famously told the 1980 Tory party conference: "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning".

It made for a great headline.

And, as Mr Cameron is discovering, more than 30 years later the media's love affair with the phrase shows no sign of fading.

BBC News External Link Show Citation

Latest News

Harvard Citation

BBC News, 2011. Are government U-turns really a 'sign of strength'? [Online] (Updated 21st Jun 2011)
Available at: http://www.ukwirednews.com/news/164006/Are-government-U-turns-really-a-sign-of-strength [Accessed 25th Jul 2014]

News In Other Categories

  • Bristol Academy extends reach overseas with first foreign students

    With the doors to its brand new £1million training centre officially open, one of the UK's leading apprentice training providers, Bristol based S&B Automotive Academy, is showcasing its world-class facilities by launching a series of foreign student exchanges for the first time in its 41-year history. To get a flavour of what life is like as an apprentice in the UK, the Academy hosted 16 apprentice engineers and bus drivers from the G9 Automotive College in Hamburg, Germany, as part of a Europe-wide vocational training initiative called the ‘Leonardo Programme’ with support from the European Social Fund. In a reciprocal arrangement, S&B will be sending nine apprentices to Germany during February 2012 so that they can get an appreciation of life in the automotive industry on the Continent. A further three German exchange groups are being planned for next year. Designed to assist the development of vocational skills and training across Europe, including work placements for trainees, the Leonardo Programme has a budget of €1.75bn, which is helping to encourage UK organisations to work with their counterparts abroad. In what is expected to be another challenging year for employers in the UK automotive sector, S&B’s Chief Executive, Jon Winter, claims that the exchange initiative will bring many benefits to the Academy and its apprentices: “In a world of global automotive brands, it’s important for our learners to understand the international context of the industry they have chosen to make their career. This new exchange programme will enable apprentices and Academy staff alike to achieve a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities within the automotive arena in Europe. With the Academy’s influence also extending to the USA and Asia, there’s every possibility that this initiative could move further afield in the future.” Continued Winter: “The need for skilled technicians across the world is on the increase and we actively encourage our apprentices to look at broader horizons during their training. Many of them have already learned the phrase ‘Vorsprung durch Gelehrtheit’, quite simply, ‘Advancement through learning.” In the 2010/11 academic year, S&B doubled the number of successful Apprenticeships over the previous year with some 350 apprentices graduating from the Academy. At the same time, achievement levels reached an all-time high with an overall success rate of 85%. For those learners on the Advanced Apprenticeship three-year programme, success rates were even higher, at over 98%. PHOTO CAPTION: As part of their exchange visit, S&B Automotive Academy arranged for the German apprentices to visit Hampshire bus operator, Bluestar, at its Barton Park depot. The students are pictured with S&B’s Andy West (3rd right) and Steve Prewett, Bluestar’s Area Engineering Manager (2nd right). Ends http://www.sandbaa.com
  • Ed Miliband: No more photo opportunities?

    When this picture of Ed Miliband's battle with a bacon butty hit the news, the Labour team pulled a few faces of their own. So why is the party's leader talking about how he looks?
  • Glasgow 2014: Flotilla sails its way into the Games

    Some have sailed from Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man and Lerwick, while others have just nipped round the coast from Largs or Inverkip.
  • Could bulk-buying save NHS pounds?

    Would it be better if the NHS bought in bulk?
  • Central African Republic rebel chief rejects ceasefire

    Seleka rebels in the Central African Republic have rejected a ceasefire deal and demanded the country be partitioned between Muslims and Christians.
  • Eleanor Bron joins The Archers cast

    Eleanor Bron has joined the cast of Radio 4's rural drama series The Archers, playing a character who first appeared in it 60 years ago.