John Rentoul: Six U-turns in one week looks like carelessness

The Prime Minister needs to sharpen up. Not believing in anything is becoming a dangerous flaw

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I have made a U-turn. I used to think that government U-turns were a good thing. I have written articles praising David Cameron for his pragmatism and sensitivity to public opinion, and pointing out that not believing in anything is a great strength. But this lot have gone too far. It was George Osborne's change of mind on capping tax relief on charitable donations that changed my mind. U-turns are now a sign of weakness, incompetence and a failure to think things through.

Most people who change their minds claim that they remain the one fixed point in the universe, which has shifted around them, and I am no exception. I have not really changed my mind – it is the Government that has changed. And what has changed is that it was given the benefit of the doubt, and now it isn't.

While the Prime Minister had the benefit of the doubt, U-turns were a sensible response to the unintended consequences of decisions. Now that Cameron has slipped in the opinion polls and everyone agrees that he has turned out to be just as useless as they had always privately thought, last week's six U-turns are confirmation that Ed Miliband is 35 months away from 10 Downing Street.

Well, I wouldn't go that far yet, but, since my U-turn, I agree that last week's U-turns were bad for Cameron. That cannot very well be denied when one of his own backbenchers, Douglas Carswell, made mock of the Chancellor, saying sarcastically that at last he understood. The Budget announced in March, Carswell said, was a "beta" version that was now being "crowdsourced" to produce a working piece of software.

Four of last week's U-turns were revisions to the Budget, one was on court secrecy and the sixth was the dropping of a plan to kill buzzards to save the lives of pheasants so that posh people could shoot more of them. If Miliband's advisers were brainstorming scenarios in which their opponents would portray themselves as "incompetent" and "out of touch" – the two phrases he has used in the Commons a lot recently – they would have struggled to come up with such a choice sequence.

Nor could they have imagined having a secret agent behind enemy lines as effective as Jeremy Hunt. The Culture Secretary's evidence at the Leveson inquiry last week was pitched to inflict maximum damage on the Prime Minister. It was a defensive hunker in which Hunt held the sophist line. Yes, he had been "sympathetic", he said, but it didn't matter because he took independent advice and followed it. It got him through the day, but he came across as a characterless functionary. He even admitted that he had sacked his special adviser with the words, "Everyone here thinks you need to go," adding, by way of elaboration, and as if this helped him, that he was "not particularly" including himself in the "everyone" in that sentence. He showed the leadership and backbone of a trodden snail.

One of two consolations for Cameron is that he has managed to postpone his first full cabinet reshuffle for more than two years now. This is a valuable gain, on the principle enunciated by Abraham Lincoln: "To remove a man is very easy, but when I go to fill his place, there are 20 applicants, and of these I must make 19 enemies."

Yet when the Prime Minister turns to survey the benches behind him in the Commons, he sees them teeming with as much dissatisfaction as if he had reshuffled his ministers quarterly.

The other consolation is that, when he faces the other way, Cameron looks upon an opposition that is engaged mostly in opposition for the sake of it.

Last week's "charity tax" U-turn was a good example. A cap on the tax relief on donations is a good and progressive idea. It arose out of Nick Clegg's plan to impose what he called a "tycoon tax", based on the American minimum rate of income tax. The Deputy Prime Minister wanted to limit the tax relief that rich people could claim, and Treasury officials pointed out that one of the big ways in which they reduce their tax is to make tax-deductible charitable donations.

I simply cannot understand why Gareth Thomas, Labour's charity spokesman, joined the vested-interest clamour of charities against capping this relief. This may be the only subject on which I agree with Nick, but Labour, too, should be against rich people deciding which charities receive subsidy from other taxpayers.

The failure of the Labour Party to offer an alternative is concealed by the apparently wide gap between the Government and Opposition on the central questions of tax and spend. But, as Tony Blair said in his memoir, the right policy on public borrowing is not in fact a matter of ideology but of technocratic judgement about what is best for the economy. The coalition may not have got it quite right, but who is to say that Ed Balls would have got it better?

So, the recent U-turns are bad. Not least because I disagree with one of them. But is Cameron in serious trouble? Not yet. The tax cut for the rich in the Budget was a mistake, which seems less and less explicable as time passes. It has needlessly lowered the share of the vote that the Conservatives can attract at the next election, but it does not mean that they must lose.

Three years is a long time. Three years ago, for example, in the summer of 2009, the MPs' expenses story had just broken in The Daily Telegraph. Who knows what might happen, especially with the eurozone only just embarked on a slow-moving economic cataclysm?

However, when opinion polls change from being a running protest vote against the Government and people come to a choice between Cameron and Miliband, with a shrinking zone of Lib Demmery in between, it is not yet obvious that the Labour alternative exerts enough pull to win.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/johnrentoul

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