Chris Bryant: Consistency is overrated but too many U-turns just demoralises the troops

 

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It has been a week of U-turns. Three of them in four days. The pasty, caravan and charity taxes are all now consigned to Room 101, where they can grow mould with the already abandoned increase of VAT on the conversion of listed buildings, the cathedral tax. That makes 34 U-turns in just two years of government.

It leaves the Government looking more and more like a lifeboat adrift on a perilous ocean, its crew all spying different horizons. It also leaves the Budget looking even more threadbare than it first appeared. All anyone can remember of it is the much-resented cut in the 50p rate of tax and the general feeling that it was designed to help the wealthy.

A well-executed U-turn can be a political lifesaver. But the problems with these Budget U-turns are legion. Yes, it's awfully clever to execute them while half the country is abroad and the other half is thinking of how to spend the Jubilee weekend (and while Jeremy Hunt is mid-evidence), but the timing has added to the sense of an arrogant, manipulative government obsessed with spin. And the fact that these announcements were made when Parliament isn't sitting in the hope of evading proper scrutiny just makes them look shifty. What is more, if a U-turn is in order and if my inbox is anything to go by, I know what economic measure my constituents would prefer a second thought on – the cost of fuel.

But most importantly, the Government needs to be very careful with its U-turns if it doesn't want a very fractious and tawdry second half to this Parliament. The truth is U-turns demoralise the loyal troops. The rebels don't care, of course. They will happily vote whichever way the mood takes them, without much concern for the chief whip's blood pressure. But this spring, the Tory arch-loyalists went out and defended the Budget line by line. They toured the radio studios. They sent out stout letters to their constituents. They argued furiously with their colleagues over a glass of claret. And now they have to do their own personal U-turn. Having to swallow your own words, especially when you're only following orders, gives even the most ardent loyalist political flatulence.

True, MPs have always been good at voting for the precise opposite of what they voted for only months earlier. Consistency is not a particularly highly prized political virtue. The Parliamentary Labour Party, after all, voted to keep shadow cabinet elections just after the general election and then voted to abolish them a year later. But these Budget U-turns have sparked two Tory bush fires simultaneously. One lot asks: "Who dreamt this stuff up in the first place?" The others worry: "Why wasn't I told we weren't going to stand our ground?" Should those two fires combine, David Cameron will be in real and present danger.

Blind faith or misplaced loyalty?

Talking of loyal souls, those two doughty yet doubt-free defenders of the Tory faith, Therese Coffey and Louise Mensch, have been scandalised by my saying on Radio 4 that Jeremy Hunt has "lied to Parliament". They say it is unparliamentary. They demand that I have the courage to say it again, in Parliament. So let me explain. Yes, Jeremy Hunt misled Parliament. I believe it is just one of the ways in which he has broken the ministerial code. And although you cannot call someone a liar in the ordinary course of business in the Commons, you can when there is an explicit motion on the table naming the person concerned, which there could be when we get back. Since Louise Mensch declared on the BBC that Hunt had been "completely exonerated" by his evidence at Leveson when Hunt was only halfway through his evidence, I suspect that her general approach to these matters is not entirely evidence based.

How to choose insults carefully

Mind you, parliamentary language is not as tightly defined as you might imagine. Some of the worst insults do get picked up. When Tony Marlow called Harriet Harman "a stupid old cow", revealing not just his stupidity but his hideous sexism, Betty Boothroyd made him withdraw it.

But under the different dispensation of Michael Martin, the late Eric Forth used to get away with referring to PMQs as PMPs or, as he readily explained, "Prime Minister's Porkies". And when George Foulkes complained of Douglas Hogg back in 1990 that "this little arrogant shit has not answered a single question" and the Speaker demanded that he "withdraw that word immediately", George not only asked which word he wanted him to withdraw – "little, arrogant or shit" – but got away with letting the first two stand.

Westminster Hall's illustrious history

There is much excitement at the prospect of Aung San Suu Kyi's impending address to both Houses in Westminster Hall. She will doubtless be told the hall's history – the state trials of Charles I, Thomas More and Warren Hastings, the lying in state of monarchs, of Gladstone and of Churchill. She might even hear of Emily Davison, the suffragette who hid in the crypt on the night of the 1911 census.

One story she might not be told, though, is of the R101 airship disaster in 1930. The airship was part of the Imperial Airship Scheme, devised by Ramsay MacDonald's Labour government to build carriers that could convey passengers to the farther flung parts of the empire. Unfortunately it never completed its maiden voyage to Karachi, as it went down over Beauvais in France on the night of 4 October, killing 48 of the 54 on board, including the Secretary of State for Air, Kit (Baron) Thomson. All 48 lay in state in Westminster Hall for a single day as 89,272 members of the public trooped past before a procession to St Paul's. It is the only time Westminster Hall has honoured such a group of commoners – and deserves a mention and a commemorative plaque.

twitter@ChrisBryantMP

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