Flip-flop Dave! U-turns threaten to undermine Cameron's image

A succession of policy U-turns over the past nine months, from forestry sales to housing benefit, is causing damage to the PM's reputation

By Matt Chorley
Sunday 20 February 2011 01:00

So far, at least, the newest recruit to the Government has been well behaved. Positive headlines. No row about pay. No mess for the Prime Minister to have to clean up. Larry the Cat is using his litter tray in No 10.

At least something has gone right. The prevailing Westminster narrative had lauded David Cameron as the hands-off chairman of the nation, allowing ministers to get on with their jobs in a return to cabinet responsibility. Now, after a succession of U-turns, is this virtue really the PM's vice?

A flair for delegation has become a lack of attention to detail. A rush for early reform has created ill-thought-out policies. No 10's blue-sky thinking meant no one saw the political horrors coming down the track. A listening government looks prone to incompetence. This was the week when the floating presidential figure came back down to earth with a bump.

In the last seven days alone there have been U-turns on forests, housing benefit and debt advice – triggered by what should have been predictable opposition from celebrities, political allies and charities respectively. Once or twice, and it creates the impression of a government responding to the public mood. But with politicos dizzy at the number of about-turns, Mr Cameron's reputation as a determined, ruthless leader is at stake. There are some who think that this Prime Minister is for turning when the opposition comes from close to home – when the chattering middle classes cry out, he listens.

These reversals, climbdowns and PR whoopsies have been linked to the coalition's attempt to dictate the pace of change since the election. Last summer every department had to produce detailed reform plans, setting out month-by-month when they would make key announcements.

Two-thirds of government departments have fallen behind on targets, in a stark sign that ministers are finding it tougher to run the country than they expected. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, admitted: "It can be a pain in the arse, but I think you just have to be really grown up about it. We get clobbered for other departments' failings." Another minister added wearily: "It has caused more problems than it's worth."

Key announcements and decisions due by the end of January covering council housing, the NHS, tourism, health and safety and cutting red tape were all missed. Some policies are five months behind schedule.

Oliver Letwin, the Cabinet Office minister and policy chief, has a whiteboard in his office listing key dates. He insists that he is "not trying to be ludicrous". In fact his position is very serious. When negotiations between Conservative and Lib Dem ministers reach a stalemate, he is called in to referee. One junior minister said: "If you turn up to a meeting and Oliver is there, you know things are bad."

With the pace set too fast, policies are floated before anyone has tested them against a series of criteria – including cost, political impact and the likely reaction from film stars, men of the cloth, Mumsnet and Middle England. One Whitehall official said the Government was "sleep-walking" into bad publicity.

Ed Staite, a communications consultant who worked for the Conservatives in opposition, said: "The soundbites have been lined up before they worked on the detail of the policy. It seems as if things are being rushed. That is why the recent U-turns could be a helpful line in the sand for the Government to recognise they haven't been getting things right. In the longer term not only will their policies be stronger, but they will communicate more effectively."

When Gordon Brown bottled the 2007 election he never fully recovered from the perception that he could be forced into reverse. But imagine ifhe had, in the space of nine months, overseen a U-turn in almost every government department. The Bunker would have been under siege.

Where Mr Brown's insecurity at appearing to show weakness meant he could not even mention the word "cuts", Mr Cameron seems to revel in the prospect of reversing over a junior colleague. His response to Ed Miliband when asked if he was happy with the forests policy – "the short answer to that is no" – speaks volumes about his über-confident approach. Own up. Deflect criticism with an over-the-top apology.

There is, however, no going back on the Big Society. Cynics say that it's because you cannot U-turn on a nebulous idea. But the more criticism is levelled at it, the more determined the PM becomes to plough ahead. Nor will there be a reversal on the Big Cuts – the plan to eradicate the deficit in four years still stands.

Political journalists love a cliché, and when a minister is forced into retreat, the Thatcher quotation insisting "the lady's not for turning" is never far away. But her boast was not entirely true. It was 30 years ago last Friday that the Iron Lady backed down over coal mines closures. She did go and finish them off later, though.

Despite his admiration for Lady Thatcher, Mr Cameron is most nervy when a policy has echoes of the 1980s. Witness the spectacle in August of David Willetts defending the abolition of the nursery milk scheme while the PM's spokesman was canning the idea because of echoes of "Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk-Snatcher".

Big-name endorsements for campaigns have proven particularly effective. Most notably, Prince William's over the privatisation of sea search and rescue, and the Archbishop of Canterbury's over the forest sell-off.

Some ministers seem more prone to problems than others. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, emerged from the mire over scrapping Building Schools for the Future only to have to abandon cuts to school sports and school music. Andrew Lansley floated scrapping NHS Direct, then ditched it. Now a letter from the NHS chief executive, David Nicholson, has emerged in the Health Service Journal insisting there was "no question of introducing price competition" into the health service, in contradiction to Mr Lansley's Health Bill.

Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, told Labour's Welsh conference yesterday that the health reforms, handing GPs 80 per cent of NHS spending power, would be the next big battle: "I warn David Cameron and the Government: the ill-feeling he created over the forests will be as nothing compared to the real anger that will build about his dangerous plans for the NHS."

Personnel issues inside No 10 have also been problematic. Hiring a vanity photographer paid for by the taxpayer had to be abandoned. Andy Coulson, the PM's spin chief, never shook off the phone-hacking inquiry from his time at the News of the World. For months it was insisted that Mr Coulson was going nowhere, until he realised that "when the spokesman needs a spokesman, it's time to move on".

Some predict the same fate could befall Caroline Spelman after her forest policy was felled. She was feted briefly in September for reaching an early deal on spending cuts. Now the feeling is that those who took their time have avoided the worst of the bad press.

Defra's plan to impose water meters on every home in England has also been quietly shelved, until someone can make it sound like a good idea. And a planned announcement on a badger cull has been kicked into the long grass. After trees, water and Mr Brock, if the war on Wind in the Willows continues, expect Mrs Spelman to propose a ban on toad in the hole.

Of course Ratty is supposedly already done for after Larry's arrival in Downing Street. When rodents were spotted in the street, No 10 refused to give in to calls for a four-legged rat-catcher. Scenting some cute PR, the PM was soon picking cat hair off his suit.

For nervous Downing Street staffers it has meant scratched legs and arms. And he doesn't even catch rats. Good TV pictures, makes the Government look cuddly, but won't actually work. A purr-fect metaphor.

The new-look team Cameron: It's a No 10 power grab worthy of Blair or Brown

After the hands-off approach, it's all hands on deck as the No 10 operation sees an influx in personnel to get a grip on the coalition's message. The backroom boys and girls who moved to Downing Street from the Tories' campaign headquarters in Millbank are being joined by fresh blood, to tackle perceived weaknesses in the media, policy and strategy operations.

A former KPMG accountant, Paul Kirby, becomes head of policy development. He will head the new Policy and Implementation Unit, alongside Kris Murrin, a former TV presenter and management guru, who leads on implementation.

They will oversee a team of as many as a dozen new policy wonks, ready to pick up the phone and politely inquire of a hapless departmental official: "What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?" It amounts to a No 10 power grab worthy of Tony Blair or Gordon Brown and comes after recognition that a closer eye needs to be kept on policy development across Whitehall.

The Downing Street release announcing the arrival of Andrew Cooper, from the pollsters Populus, as director of strategy, came only from Mr Cameron. As a special adviser, paid by the taxpayer, he will work for the Tories, after advising them in opposition. He will work closely with the former BBC News man Craig Oliver, who becomes director of communications, replacing the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson who left last month amid continuing questions about his alleged involvement in phone-hacking at the newspaper. Using the hiatus to assert his authority before all the new kids arrive is Steve Hilton, the oft-lampooned strategist responsible for the decontamination of the Tory party, who has both the PM's ear and his trust.

Gabby Bertin remains the ultra-loyal press secretary, having schlepped around the country by Cameron's side in opposition. She is now aided by Alan Sendorek, who over the New Year switched jobs with former Express hack Henry Macrory, who went back to lead the Tory HQ press operation. The head of operations, Liz Sugg, makes sure all those jacket-off-sleeves-up Q&A events go smoothly. Ed Llewellyn, the chief of staff, used to work for Chris Patten, who is about to become the chairman of the BBC Trust. Kate Fall, the deputy chief of staff, is an old Oxford pal of the PM. Together they will seek to move on from the negative language of cuts and U-turns. But in the short term expect one or two tales of power struggles as each new cog tries to find its place in the machinery of government.

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