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U-turns — better late than never

U-turns can be good for governments, not bad. They show that ministers are willing to learn from mistakes and to correct previous policy failures. They remove a source of complaint. But, as with most things in life, they should not happen too often, otherwise they create the impression of lack of grip and direction, and chaotic decision making, precisely the danger facing David Cameron and the coalition government now. The real question is less the U-turn than the reasons for the original policy failure.

U-turn is among the most over-used terms in political debate along with 'the most disastrous week ever'; 'it’s not brain surgery/rocket science'; 'UKplc'. It is part of gotcha journalism and politics, when a government weakness and policy change is highlighted — as is happening now with the withdrawal of Budget proposal on hot takeaway pies and static holiday caravans, and the proposed limits on the use of secrecy in court proceedings. Of course, no government wants to admit publicly that their original policy has had to be changed. But it is far better to do this than to incur continuing anger and criticism by persisting with the original proposals. There is no virtue, or gain, in making a hole deeper. Politics is about reconciling different interests. There is no point in consistency for its own sake if the price is big backbench revolts and media controversy out of proportion to the issues involved — while also undermining general support for the government on more important matters. The Iron Lady herself, Margaret Thatcher, was adept at such tactical retreats. Despite her defiant 1980 comment that ‘the Lady is not for turning’, she was often flexible in practice. What mattered to her was the underlying strategic goal, and making clear where she would not change course — an important lesson for David Cameron now. Tony Blair, at his peak, displayed similar clarity about goals, if not about means. At present, what matters is not the £70 million cost of the two tax changes but sticking to the overall deficit reduction target — thought the muddled manner of the change has raised doubts about the Treasury’s plans. Similarly, the changes from the original Green Paper in the new Justice and Security Bill maintain the key principle of protecting sensitive intelligence material and sources. After the initial bad headlines, very few people will be angry at dropping the pasty and caravan taxes — just as very few are mourning the decision to abandon the original proposals to sell off forests. Just think of the reverse if there had been no changes: big Commons revolts in a fortnight on the Finance Bill and serious problems for the Justice and Security Bill in the Lords. There are two main lessons for ministers. First, get the original policymaking process right. Almost all the recent cases of ‘U-turns’ violate the principles for good policymaking set out In the Institute for Government’s report last year ‘Making Policy Better’. Decisions were taken hurriedly without sufficient consultation, or consideration of the likely impact and response. These were as much political as civil service failures. Second, make clear what really matters and what is secondary — and don’t make a fetish of sticking to the latter. The policy changes are not an advertisement for good government. David Cameron and his team need to strengthen their central operation, as the IfG has repeatedly argued, and to show what is really important to them. But it is the original errors, not the corrections, that matter.

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