Andrew Grice: A genuine U-turn would be on the 50p top rate of tax

Inside Westminster

Share
Related Topics

'This is not a U-turn!" used to be the mantra of David Cameron's aides. I lost count of how many times I heard it. After his retreats on selling England's public forests and the Government's NHS reforms, the Prime Minister saw climbdowns as a sign of weakness and sought to avoid them.

Now he has done a U-turn on his ban on U-turns, abandoning one of his guiding principles since taking office. Three key measures in George Osborne's March Budget – the "pasty tax", 20 per cent VAT on static caravans and the cap on tax relief on charitable donations – were dumped in the space of four days this week.

It seems that Thatcher's law – "The Lady's not for turning", she told the Conservative conference in 1980 – has been consigned to the history books.

Ministers complain they can't win. The media will clamour for a change of policy and then accuse ministers of weakness when they buckle. "U-turn" fits neatly into headlines. In public, ministers argued feebly that they were part of a listening government. In private, they feared being seen as incompetent.

At least Mr Osborne did one thing right by getting his U-turns over quickly. The "charity tax" retreat was the most sudden of this week's about-turns. It had been pencilled in for the autumn but the Chancellor, after dumping his pasty and caravan taxes, decided to rush it out this week.

No doubt one attraction was an attempt to limit the media damage from Jeremy Hunt's appearance before the Leveson inquiry. True, the charities' reprieve led TV news bulletins. But yesterday's front pages, which gave more prominence to Mr Hunt, showed the press is not always distracted by a diversionary firework display.

Mr Osborne was mindful that Gordon Brown showed how not to U-turn it after he abolished the 10p starting rate of tax. He was in denial, insisting there would be no losers. The delay meant he eventually needed the mother of all U-turns: it cost £2.7bn but, politically, was money down the drain because he got no credit for it.

Indeed, obstinacy can cause more damage than retreating under fire. Baroness Thatcher's refusal to bend over her vote-losing, flagship poll tax was the spark for her own party's act of regicide. If Mr Osborne had not backed down over his Budget measures, he would have suffered messy Commons rebellions in the weeks ahead – and more damaging headlines. So U-turns can be the lesser of two evils.

Not that governments can expect much credit. Tory MPs are a hard bunch to please. While those with a constituency interest in pasties or caravans could claim victory, loyalists grumble because they have been defending unpopular decisions and feel the rug has been pulled from under them.

Some Tory insiders were tempted to argue the retreat on pasties showed that the Chancellor is in touch with ordinary people and recognises their concerns. Which, of course, begs the question why he introduced the tax in the first place.

Of course, it is much better to get decisions right first time. The post-Budget "omnishambles" shows there is something missing at the heart of the government machine – an early warning system to spot the nasties before they become public. I am sure others have been stopped before we knew about them but events of the past week suggest too many are slipping through.

Cabinet ministers hope their deck-clearing will be forgotten as the public enjoy the Diamond Jubilee celebrations. But the danger for the Government is that it fails to break out of its "omnishambles" rut and that every policy tweak is magnified by the media into yet another U-turn. Competence, once lost, is not easily regained.

As Nick de Bois, secretary of the 1922 Committee of Tory MPs, warned: "When it goes from a question of being a listening and responding government, it is quite possible that it becomes a government which has its competency challenged."

Despite all the fuss, the revisions to the Budget were at the margins. A real U-turn would have seen Mr Osborne admit the private sector recovery on which his economic strategy is based had failed to materialise, and announce a stimulus to start the economy.

Instead, the Treasury is being pushed into a Plan A-Plus as it scrabbles around for large-scale building, transport and housing projects, while denying it is adopting Plan B.

Crucially, a U-turning Chancellor would have abandoned the Budget's cut in the 50p top rate of tax, which advertised the Government's biggest weakness – that, in the words of the Tory MP Nadine Dorries, it is run by "two arrogant posh boys". The tax cut for those earning more than £150,000 a year will be a lasting symbol of this Government, remembered long after the pasty tax.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there