The Government's decision to allow cigarette advertising to continue in Formula One motor racing is a significant moment. It is Labour's first broken manifesto promise, and that matters more than it might because of the fuss that Tony Blair made about the Conservatives breaking their pledges, and how Labour's manifesto was a "bond of trust", his own "contract with the people".
This has come into conflict with another part of the creed: the determination not to promise what cannot be delivered. It turns out that not all the wrinkles and rough places encountered in Government had been foreseen in opposition.
Not only was the ban on tobacco advertising wrong in principle, as a form of gesture politics, and an illiberal one at that, it was foolish to have been so absolute about it. Journalists pointed out to Frank Dobson that Formula One races might simply move out of the European Union and yet be broadcast within it, but he stuck to the manifesto line. He wasn't to know that the Prime Minister was busy sawing a circle around his feet, but when he found out, the least he could have done was go on the Today programme himself rather than sending a junior minister to sound silly on his behalf. The one thing that Tessa Jowell was obviously not authorised to say was what she should have said: we made a mistake - a total ban is not as straightforward as we thought.
So far, so symbolic and so (relatively) unimportant. What matters is whether the recent spate of claims of broken pledges betokens anything more serious about the nature and style of this government.
As a service to our readers, then, here are those U-turns in full: keeping some tobacco advertising; banning gays in the military; and taxing pension funds. It is a short list, and two of them were not ruled out in the manifesto. What is more, there was nothing on the ban on homosexuals in the armed forces in the manifesto, and Jack Straw puzzled those liberals who thought Labour had "got its betrayal in early" by suddenly declaring in March this year: "The ban is unfair and it will go." His present stance, of wasting taxpayers' money to fight doomed cases defending the ban in European courts, is equally baffling.
Nor was Gordon Brown's pounds 5bn-a-year tax on pensions funds ruled out by the manifesto, which promised to "review" the corporate tax regime to see how it could "promote greater long-term investment". But it flies in the face of Mr Blair's repeated assurance during the election campaign that he had "no plans at all" to raise taxes. He is saved (a) by the complexity and remoteness of the change, and (b) by the fact that it is entirely sensible.
The Government has been accused of other U-turns which cannot be added to the charge sheet. Something deep and strange is going on beneath the Private Member's Bill to ban fox-hunting, but Mr Blair never did promise Government time in the House of Commons. Nor should he have done, although he has sent enough contradictory signals to confuse a whole pack of hounds.
And it was this newspaper which broke the news that Labour had reneged on a pledge to stop the testing of cosmetics on animals. But, as we report today, the Government has now been shamed into securing a voluntary agreement to end such tests.
Other minor U-turns have been alleged by pressure groups seizing on the tone of opposition rhetoric rather than the letter of Labour promises. Harriet Harman criticised Tory meanness, but did not promise to take the wind-chill factor into account in cold weather payments for pensioners. Jack Straw doesn't like child jails or private prisons, but he never said he wouldn't have more of them. Frank Dobson attacked secret Tory plans to bring in water meters, but he never said Labour didn't harbour them too.
What is much more important than any of Labour's broken promises or disappointed expectations to date is whether or not the Government delivers on the central planks of its manifesto. Mr Blair's five key pledges have all collided with reality. The Government won't even start trying to cut infant class sizes until next year, and it is still not obvious how it will be done. The same applies to faster sentencing for young offenders. But the really tough one is going to be cutting NHS waiting lists; since the election, they have risen steeply.
Let the boy racers decorate their dangerous toys with cigarette ads. If Mr Dobson can get waiting lists down, Labour's bond of trust with the people might survive.Reuse content