Steve Richards: You can tell a lot about a Prime Minister from his U-turns

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The U-turn is the most vivid and unflattering metaphor in British politics. Leaders are fearful of any association with the image, one that suggests they are weakly, pathetically turning back from their previously declared destination.

Margaret Thatcher defined her leadership by proclaiming she was not for turning. Always keen to seem Thatcherlike in his decisiveness Tony Blair declared that he had no reverse gear. In contrast Ted Heath and John Major became famous for their U-turns as they led their parties towards election defeats in 1974 and 1997. They were seen as weak when applying the change of gear.

Gordon Brown's leadership is increasingly marked by the U-turn too. Peter Mandelson's announcement on Wednesday that he was not going ahead with the partial privatisation of the Post Office is the latest in a series in which a significant change of direction is announced.

No wonder Brown looks a little pallid. He is navigating the giddiest of paths. After Mandelson's announcement, the Conservatives issued a document highlighting 20 U-turns since Brown became Prime Minister in the summer of 2007. Usually such documents are comically tendentious, but I would not have contested any on the list and could have added some more.

The three big ones are the scrapping of plans to detain suspects without charge for up to 42 days, the compensation for the abolition of the 10p tax rate and now the decision not to go ahead with the changes to the Post Office. Arguably the announcement that the inquiry into the war in Iraq would be held partly in public was also a pretty big switch and one that happened in the space of a few days, but in a crowded field there is a limit to the number of changes I can explore here.

Before I begin the exploration and highlight what it tells us about Brown's leadership, there are two important points to make about the U-turn. The first is that leaders who made a fetish of appearing strong were also capable of reversing gear. Their single-minded resolution was partly an act. Indeed, as Thatcher proclaimed her famous defiance in relation to economic policy she was in reality changing gear, diluting her previously more rigid adherence to monetarism. She had a more developed sense of the pragmatic arts than her oratory suggested. Blair was even more flexible, from dropping his "historic objective" to join the euro to more specific proposals such as scrapping plans to cut benefits.

In addition, the U-turn is not always a calamity, can be sensible and is sometimes unavoidable. Major tried to explain to a restive party conference that it was necessary sometimes to "trim" when a government had a small majority. Heath was faced with a tripling of the oil price and the prospect of mass unemployment when he switched from a "laissez-faire" approach to leading one of the more hyperactive governments of modern times. Quite often there are good reasons for changes of direction.

But such reversals do cast an illuminating light on a government and the prime minister at its head. Brown's U-turns are particularly revealing and in my view explain why he totters precariously, slumped in the polls and the victim already of two attempted internal coups.

The three big ones have much in common. The partial privatisation of the post office, the "42 days" detention and the abolition of the 10p tax all had a clear, but deviously contorted, political purpose. The Post Office proposals were announced last December, days after several influential newspapers and the BBC's Newsnight had reported prominently the "death of New Labour".

The pre-budget report delivered in the same month had included a tax increase for high earners and that was enough for some in the media to proclaim New Labour's demise. The media's response to the tax rise, which should have been anticipated by No 10, threw Brown into a panic. He phoned at least one editor directly to protest.

In this context, the proposal to partially privatise the Post Office was described to me by one No 10 insider as "absolutely vital, as it shows New Labour is alive and kicking". This was not the only reason for the announcement, but political calculation partly determined the rush to go ahead without clearing a route towards implementation. When he was Chancellor, Brown always prepared the entire route in advance of announcing controversial policies, sometimes with immense political skill. On the Post Office, Brown wanted some New Labour-style headlines quickly. As far as he was concerned the route could follow the announcement. In the end, he discovered there was no route.

The abolition of the 10p tax rate was more calamitous. It financed a cut in the basic rate of income tax in his final budget as Chancellor, a move aimed at proving that Brown would not be an "old Labour" leader and outmanoeuvring the Conservative leadership who were pretending at the time to be against tax cuts and in favour of Labour's spending levels (David Cameron can U-turn too).

The move was a catastrophe. There is not a single voter in the land who is grateful to Brown for the tax cut. Most have not noticed. After the U-turn, some of the losers have been paid back, costing vast sums and in a way that unpicked an entire budget.

The "42 days" was the product of a similar set of calculations. Again, there were reasons of substance for the move, but they were overwhelmed by the crude calculation that Brown could do what Blair had failed to do (and in the process win the support of some influential newspapers): appear like the father of the nation and leave the Conservatives divided over the issue.

Brown did not even win over his closest ministerial allies. One cabinet minister refused to appear on any programme while the proposal was running as a big story because he could not defend it. The policy was dropped last autumn at the height of the financial crisis.

In all three cases, Brown was trying to be at least as New Labour as Blair. In all three, he had not thought through the practical implications nor secured adequate support from his party in advance. The 10p tax compensation revolt had support across the Labour party. The "42 days" proposal would have been heavily defeated in the Commons and the Lords. The Post Office proposals would have been carried only with the support of the Conservatives and in the face of a mighty Labour rebellion.

Reflecting on these U-turns, I am reminded of a conversation with one of Brown's allies who told me in relation to the fatal non-election sequence in 2007: "Gordon couldn't decide whether to break with Blairism. He could have only justified calling an early election by making a break and offering a distinctive pitch. He was worried that a break would split the cabinet and lose support in the media. Perhaps he did not want to make the break anyway".

The U-turns show that Brown has never acquired a clear voice of his own as Prime Minister and has failed to break away from his complicated past. Perhaps an early election would have liberated him from the manacles. Instead, we are left with a trail of major reversals that convey the insecure mindset of a Prime Minister trying too hard to win a big tent of support when virtually the entire campsite has moved on.