Food vouchers: Why government U-turns matter

Laura Kuenssberg
Political editor
@bbclaurakon Twitter

Published
image copyrightReuters

Most of us change our minds all the time.

Maybe this morning you had planned to go for a run, then actually when push came to shove another ten minutes in bed seemed a better idea.

Maybe when you grew up you wanted to be an astronaut but then discovered that you weren't that good at physics and, developed vertigo as an adult in any case. Maybe you spent years doing one job but decided over time that it wasn't for you.

This is normal life, and perfectly rational behaviour. One of the most well-known 20th Century economists, John Maynard Keynes, summed up "when the facts change, I change my mind".

Although for the pedants among you (welcome along!), as with so many of the most quoted statements, it may actually have originally been said by someone else - a different august economist, Paul Samuelson - and might have been the slightly different phrase, "when my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do sir?"

Why then do politicians try to avoid a change of heart?

It's not just to try to escape occasional headlines about a "screaming U-turn", although that is part of the equation.

It's about judgement and authority too.

On an individual issue, doing the right thing because of a change of heart is better than pursuing a policy that will cause harm.

Beyond the subjective nature of the "right thing" there are also moments when the political momentum is pulling so strongly in one direction, it becomes inevitable.

Although ministers have for many days defended the decision not to pay for free school meals in England over the summer, highlighting other chunks of money given to councils to help; the involvement of a young, well-liked, articulate and high-profile figure Marcus Rashford made that defence less sustainable by the hour.

Tory MPs started telling their party handlers, the whips, in the last 24 hours they wouldn't vote for it.

image copyrightEPA

And some senior figures in the party had started to question what the merits were of continuing a fight that would take a relatively small government cheque to fix, where the downside of sticking to the plan had terrible optics. Not giving in made it look, one MP feared, like the Tories have a "blind spot on poverty".

Another former minister said it was causing "widespread concern that Number 10 has bad political antennae".

So not that long after he sat down to chat to my excellent colleague Sally Nugent for BBC Breakfast, it was Marcus Rashford 1, Boris Johnson 0, and the government had rolled over.

Every now and then it can be important for governments to show they are listening.

And it's pretty clear that the political froth over "U-turns" causes much less fuss among the public. But the reality too is that frequent changes of heart can be damaging over time.

Each time there is a reversal, you can hear a little piece of a government's credibility being chipped away.

Every time something else is unpicked, that loyal backbencher, or loyal minister, loses a little of their own willingness to provide defence for the boss. And frequent concessions can give an impression to the wider public of a government that simply keeps getting things wrong.

When you put a cross in the box in the voting booth you are putting your faith in your favourite, or least worst option.

Politicians have to demonstrate to the public and their parties on a perpetual basis that they are heading in the right direction and broadly taking the correct path.

Too many U-turns and governments can end up going round and round in circles instead.