Talk about getting the barnacles off the boat. On Wednesday David Cameron announced a U-turn on child refugees. On Thursday Lord Prior, a Health minister, declared a pause in imposing new contracts on junior doctors. And on Friday Nicky Morgan, the Education Secretary, said she would drop legislation to force schools to convert to academies.
The “barnacles” mantra was one of Lynton Crosby’s during the 2015 election campaign. The Australian strategist is keeping his distance from the EU referendum battle, but the Prime Minister has learned the lesson. Hence the attempt to remove all distractions before the voters start to pay attention to the choice facing the nation on 23 June.
His skill at the unembarrassed and reasonably prompt U-turn is one of Cameron’s greatest strengths, and has been from the start. Most of us have forgotten the details now, but when he first became Prime Minister there were skid-marks all over the road. Selling off the nation’s forests is the only one that sticks in the mind, which shows how successful the politics of the tactical retreat can be.
Not believing in things too much is an asset for a politician. Most notably last week it served Sadiq Khan well. One person’s slipperiness is another’s pragmatism and 1.3m other people’s electability. But Cameron’s admissions of error last week do raise the question of why he made the mistakes in the first place, after six years’ experience in government.
On child refugees, Cameron thought he had a strong argument. Hard-hearted though it seemed, he thought that to accept the 3,000 unaccompanied Syrian children would simply encourage more parents to send their (mostly older teenage) children ahead of them.
But Parliament wouldn’t wear it, and so he had to climb down, trying to preserve his principle by saying that Britain would not take unaccompanied children who arrived at Calais after March.
The doctors’ dispute has deeper causes, but the big problem was Cameron’s unfunded promise during the election campaign of a “seven-day NHS”. That was what broke the wet paper sack of the squeeze on NHS funding. Who knows if last week’s change of tone will be enough to solve a dispute that has gained a momentum of its own, but at least the Government now looks as if it is trying.
The most mysterious mistake was George Osborne’s decision to use the Budget to announce that all schools would be forced to become academies by 2022. Having asserted his authority over Morgan’s Education department, the least he could have done would have been to announce the U-turn himself, but he ungallantly pushed his subordinate out to do the climbdown.
But why did he think such a self-evidently flawed idea was good in the first place? The only explanation can be a severe case of Gordon-Brownitis, as a chancellor cast around for a shiny gimmick to announce in a Budget otherwise stymied by bleak economic forecasts.
Part of the wider problem is that Cameron and Osborne have failed to adapt to a one-party government. They had become used to negotiating policy with the Liberal Democrats and thinking that, once it was agreed inside government, the coalition’s big majority in the Commons would deliver the legislation. Now, with a one-party majority of 16, it takes just eight Tory rebels to strip the Government of the power to pass a law.
The Prime Minister doesn’t like the comparison, but he is like Harold Wilson, a flexible fixer holding together a divided party. Cameron insists that, apart from Europe, his party is united behind his “modernisation”. Which is a bit like saying that, apart from the anti-capitalism and the anti-Americanism, Jeremy Corbyn is a Blairite.
Wilsonian flexibility is a strength in a leader, but its price is loss of direction. Cameron knows that Wilson didn’t leave much of a legacy apart from the Open University and an economy going down the drain.
Even if, like Wilson, he wins his referendum on Europe, his monument is so far a small, jerry-built construction surrounded by temporary hoardings. The welcome plans to reform prisons and to take mental health care more seriously have hardly got beyond the warm words stage. His great life-chances theme seems too diffuse and too contradictory to amount to much. An “all-out assault on poverty” makes no sense for a Government that still – despite last year’s retreat on tax credits – plans to balance the budget on the back of the working poor, through cuts in universal credit.
Cameron has got the barnacles off the boat, but new ones keep on attaching themselves, and all the while the boat seems to be drifting.