Do government U-turns actually matter?

Lady Thatcher addresses Conservative Party conference in 1980 Lady Thatcher's speech made U-turns a test of political virility

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There is nothing opposition politicians and headline hungry journalists like better than a government U-turn. But does the public care?

"You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."

With an icy glare and a pun on the title of an obscure 1940s comedy, Margaret Thatcher let the 1980 Conservative Party conference know exactly what she thought of those who were calling for her to change economic direction.

She also gave birth to a modern political obsession.

The phrase "U-turn" began appearing in newspaper headlines in the early 1970s when then Prime Minister Ted Heath had to dump his free-market economic policy in the face of soaring inflation and rampant industrial action.

Mrs Thatcher and her supporters on the Tory right never forgave him for what they saw as an appalling display of weakness. She made refusing to do a U-turn the ultimate test of political virility.

And by sticking to its core austerity plan in the face of mounting criticism, David Cameron's coalition government can arguably claim to have met it.

But in all other respects, Mr Cameron has, critics say, presided over something of a golden age for what Mrs Thatcher called in her speech "that favourite media catchphrase, the U-turn".

Dozens of policies have been reversed or rethought since the coalition came to power.

'Gathering storm'

Everything from a decision to sell off Britain's forests to the £100m cancellation of a fighter jet contract has been branded a U-turn by the Labour opposition even when, in some cases, they were calling for it.

A few coalition U-turns

  • Joint Strike Fighter order
  • Pasty tax
  • Caravan tax
  • Tax on charitable giving
  • Child benefit cuts
  • Selling off forests
  • Sentence discounts for early guilty pleas
  • Tax relief on video games
  • Axeing under-fives' school milk

Some of these decisions can be put down to the normal business of government, as policy proposals are refined and tweaked through consultation.

But others, where ministers and MPs have loyally taken to the airwaves to defend a policy only to find it dropped a few days later, are in danger of giving the impression of a government that does not know what it is doing.

In the past week alone, Chancellor George Osborne has made three U-turns on policies announced in his March Budget - in response to lobbying from groups that would have been adversely affected by them.

Changing plans to impose VAT on hot food - the so-called pasty tax - and static caravans will not cost the Treasury much in financial terms, which is why they were easy U-turns to perform, but they have handed the chancellor's critics further ammunition.

As he announced his latest change of heart, on a plan to impose limits on tax relief for charitable giving, the chancellor said he wanted to concentrate on what really mattered, protecting Britain from the "gathering storm" of global economic grief.

'Full-time chancellor'

His claim might have carried more weight if it had not also been revealed on Thursday, at the Leveson Inquiry, that he had found time in his busy schedule, in December 2010, to get involved in the decision to hand control of the BSkyB bid to Jeremy Hunt.

George Osborne George Osborne has faced mounting criticism of his March Budget

Some Conservative backbenchers have told the BBC that at a time of huge economic crisis Britain needed a "full-time chancellor" - a swipe at the fact that Mr Osborne spends part of his week working on political strategy.

Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott went further and said Mr Osborne and his Lib Dem chief secretary Danny Alexander having difficulties because they were "relatively new to politics and have not had business experience".

There is also concern that the coalition appears to lack a coherent strategy beyond cutting the deficit, and that, as a result, it is too easily pushed about by lobby groups.

The chairman of the Commons Treasury Committee, Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie, said the string of U-turns would encourage "vested interest groups" to press for concessions on measures in next year's Budget.


But do the public actually care about U-turns, provided the government gets the policy right in the end?

Research by Ipsos Mori suggests two-thirds of voters want a prime minister to act mainly "on the views and opinions of the general public to make decisions", as opposed to a third that want a PM who "trusts his own judgement and experience to make decisions".

Mr Cameron has said he is "proud" to lead a government that listens to the public and expert opinion rather than ploughing on with poorly thought-out policies.

The danger, for Mr Cameron, is that the media and the opposition are now on permanent U-turn watch.

A flurry of excitement on Twitter earlier on Friday, about a supposed U-turn on taxing waste dumped in skips, being the latest example.

It was dismissed by the Treasury, with no pun intended, as "rubbish" - just a re-issuing of existing guidance.

But the newspapers and Westminster commenterati appear to have taken a different view.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    If you are an advocate of the Government then they don't matter - the Government is just 'listening' and reacting to the Public.

    If you are an advocate of the opposition they do matter - it is the Government demonstrating poor judgement and dithering.

    If you are a media outlet you simply select whichever position will sell more papers / advertising / fit your ideology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    29 U-turns in 2 years, I make that 14.5 a year. So with 3 more years to go we can logically expect another 43.5.

    I guess the "Health and Social care bill" won't be one of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    Do U-turns matter?
    Well I reckon it matters who's making them & why.
    It's all a question of honesty and intention.
    Anyone who thinks any of the current politicati are honest or has good intentions is either naive or foolish (or part of it...)
    In short, this is nothing but theatre, to keep minds off important things, like global economic collapse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    The U-turns are on the "pasty tax", VAT on mobile homes, and charity taxes. These total £100 million or so and are not essential in the big scheme of things. Could the government now do the important U-turn and stimulate some growth and reduce economically and socially disastrous unemployment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    yes,u- turns do matter,especialy when they concern a Government as egotistical,arrogant & as ignorant as the present one we seem to have lumbered ourselves with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Despite my general hatred of all things Tory, I would chose a party that had the courage to say 'we've changed our mind - this is the better option' than one that stuck stubbornly to the wrong path to save face. Personally, I think one of the problems with our political parties atm is they assume we are all dumb and couldn't ever accept a change of policy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    In the light of change circumstance or other legitimate need it is brave to have a change of mind (a U turn if you must) than stick to a decision for no better reason than perhaps to save face.

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    If you find you are going up a wrong road you make a U turn.

    Personally, I just carry on going, I don't end up end up where I intended to be, but probably where I should be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    lots of u-turns probably means the Govt isn't consulting enough, arrogance, maybe. Nu-labour style focus groups are much derided but can help get a populist perspective. The budget issues were not ideological but logical changes from the treasury's book of "tax anomolies that could be fixed to make a bit of money", the problem was (whipped up?) public unpopularity + not seeing all the consequences

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    The recent U turns show a lack of research into the viability of governmant policies and how out of touch with reality MPs are in the first place to suggest such policies. Thiis definately doesn't promote confidence. Also, it needs to be asked why drop certain policies due to public pressure but railroad through others ie the NHS bill? Intermittant deafness?

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Dunno about the government, but most of the HYS from the BBC - comes straight from the "U" bend

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    So-called 'U-turns' do have significance.One or two could give a government credit for listening.Multi 'U-turns' expose dire, irretrievable incompetence.Ironic isn't it that the one they didn't make was on the Health&Social Care Bill thereby compounding their pathetic,bordering on clueless, exercise of power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    The problem is our adversarial way of government. On many aspects there are little differences between the views of different parties, but, in order to present a distinctive position, small differences are given inordinate emphasis: the trivial appears to be major. So, change in anything becomes a U turn, sensationalised by our trivialising media.
    Economy Plan B would be a U turn - a needed one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    The government has made itself look silly. But one thing that is good is the ability to recognise an error and be prepared to correct it. Mind you I am not convinced that Osborne made errors in all three cases, but perhaps I am am in a minority. Pasties, if sold hot should be taxed like all hot takeaway food, so the criteria is simple, if it is not pre heated then no vat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    The trouble is both sides of the house act like children, baying for blood every time someone on the other side changes their mind or realises something was a bad idea, only to then do the exact same things themselves and insist it is the right thing to do. I'm sick of paying through the nose for politicians to act like overgrown kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I agree with Baza etc! forget the rhetoric of Politicians and the machinations of the opposition it is their job to behave as school children. Unlike school children though I do not believe there is legislation in place to prevent them getting a bloomin good slap. Instead of shouting from the roof tops 'shambles' why not take credit for your calls for a U-Turn in the first place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    Fully agree with make "U Turns" is the basis of sound management'; everyone makes mistakes and the wise take council and alter course. It is only Labour in their arrogance who always think they are always right and to make mistakes and to admit to same and change course is a sign of weakness in their idealogical appraisal. Pity they wouldn't change course and altered some policies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Of course they matter. Each U turn costs the country either through the Government wasting money on enquiries and reports or people starting to plan for a policy then told they don't have to.

    Wonder what bad news the Tories are hiding behind each farce.

    Also if Tory ministers cannot make considered decisions then what hope that their candidates for police commissioners will be better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Yes, I think U-Turns matter, depending on the number, importance, moving us towards the right direction...
    But this Coalition Govt no sooner makes a decision than it is U-Turned, & the overall effect is dizziness, numbness, a sense of being lost in the wilderness without a guide, map or compass.
    The word I'd apply is LOST.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Politics should be like cricket. If someone keeps dropping catches in the slips, send them to the boundary. In this case Osborne should be sent to the back benches.

    This has been the worst and least intelligent budget for years. OK to add tax to pasties and caravans, but not luxury yachts or fine wines.


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