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

By Brian Wheeler
Political reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
David Cameron says he is proud to lead a listening government

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.

Listening government?

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.

He later reduced MPs on all sides of the Commons to helpless laughter, when he joked, after being accused of a U-turn by a Labour backbencher, that he had executed plenty of them in his time and they should always be performed with "purpose and panache when you have to do them".

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

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 governments, with the best hearing, 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.

Thatcher speech

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?

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's own polling may also 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.