Just over a year on from the formation of the coalition, Number 10 advisers must be suffering from an acute case of vertigo. The about-turn is fast becoming the defining characteristic of government – with high profile backtracking dominating the front pages of broadsheets and tabloids alike.
The coalition is making more U-turns than a learner driver. Cameron’s intervention in Ken Clarke’s sentencing plan is, of course, but one recent example. The NHS, the Forestry Bill, EMA, School Milk; the list goes on, and seems to be increasing by the week.
The U-turn is a political communications beartrap, and historically it has been the pitfall of many a political leader; Brown and Major were branded political ditherers for what was seen by many to be a demonstration of weak, ineffectual leadership. High profile U-turns on the economy led to their respective downfalls from power.
So how is it that following the announcement Cameron’s approval ratings were up 95 points, according to YouGov? Have the U-turns, dressed up as democratic listening exercises, been an effective way of harnessing an increasingly angry and vocal electorate?
And have they allowed Cameron to firm up his position at the head of the table? Look at yesterday’s coverage of the most recent U-turn, sentencing. You’ll notice that the line is almost exclusively anti-Clarke, with Cameron positioned as the headstrong, decisive leader, wading in to ditch unpopular policies. Even his refusal to apologise for recent U-turns is dressed with a commitment to decisive, democratic leadership. “Being strong is about being prepared to admit you were wrong the first time”, Cameron said in an interview. This is a far cry from the leadership style of the Tory Iron Lady, or indeed Blair, to whom Cameron is often compared. Cameron, it appears, is for turning; and according to CCHQ spin doctors, he’ll gladly do it with aplomb, humility and grace.
Can it be that the U-turn is the most recent way of repackaging the democratic franchise for the electorate? Certainly, it seems that the general public is more convinced than it previously was by political backtracking. Perhaps this is reflective of an age where political critique has been made ubiquitous by a constant stream of blogs, comments and tweets; media has become profoundly social, interactive, democratic. To appear out of touch with public grievance is to admit to being ‘offline’ in an age where citizens are predominantly online. It’s only a matter of time until Cameron gets retweeted by the masses: “NHS/Sentencing/Housing Benefit: it’s all about U!”
One thing’s for sure – the U-turns have made for fantastic political theatre, have kept us policy comms geeks on our toes; and they’ve kept the coalition on the front page, allowing Cameron to control and differentiate the Number 10 line from the ministerial one.
So all well and good? In actual fact, far from it. No 10 risks buying into its own rhetoric and believing that voters will forever see U-turns as a sign of listening strength. The reverse is true. Nor will the media hold back its criticism for much longer. Any more U-turns and we could see the first inklings of a backbench revolt, as MPs get bored and frustrated by defending difficult policies that then end up being scrapped.
Sure, for the time being, Cameron has one up on Miliband, whose only rhetorical weapon seems to be taking a slightly objectionable and facile moral high ground – appealing to Grauniad readers and the centre left Twitterati, but clearly lacking in political substance.
But Dave now risks losing the firm base of voters who once knew that “The Lady was not for turning”, and who begin to think that “The Gentleman does nothing but spin round and round in circles”.