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Cameron over-reacted to Blair's centralisation of government. As he corrects himself, the fightback begins

by Paul Goodman

Cameron-fight-back-2 Today's papers kick up a rumpus about Government U-turns in the wake of the forest sell-off climbdown (which the Sunday Telegraph duly gloats over).  The Independent on Sunday lists about-turns this week on housing benefit and debt advice, looks back to retreats over NHS Direct, school sport and nursery milk and glances forward to further DEFRA flights on water meters and badger culling"Was none who would be foremost/To lead such dire attack/But those behind cried "Forward!"/And those before cried "Back!"

David Cameron shouldn't bother for a moment over some of this, as he thoughtfully chews the marmalade spoon at Chequers this morning.  U-turns, climbdowns, retreats, about-turns and flights are part of the stuff of government: they're what all administrations do, everywhere, all the time, as policies are advanced, tested and then - all too often - abandoned.  Lady Thatcher (as Mrs Thatcher) was sometimes for turning, most memorably over battling with the miners during her first term.

But she did, of course, battle with them - and win - during her second, which should give the Prime Minister pause for thought.  His great predecessor was skilled at spotting the difference between tactical and strategic retreats.  Her first term mission, sharply interrupted by the Falklands War, was to get inflation down, salvage the economy and tame the unions, albeit by stealth.  As her second term stretched into her third, she relied increasingly a core team at the centre to help deliver her aims (Charles Powell and Bernard Ingham).

John Major reacted against it by creating a "Cabinet of chums".  Tony Blair reacted against that by building a command-and-control operation in Downing Street far more extensive than Thatcher's.  Cameron duly reacted against that by stressing "an end to sofa government".  Meetings would be taken with minutes,  Ministers would run their departments, special advisers would be culled.  The Prime Minister agrees with Harold Macmillan, who liked to quote Gilbert and Sullivan: "quiet, calm deliberation disentangles every knot".

This style has its strengths.  Remember Cameron's dignified Commons response to the Bloody Sunday enquiry (Blair would have milked the occasion) or his refusal to panic over the Cumbria shootings (Blair would have ordered a new "crackdown on guns").  But it's becoming increasingly clear that the Government lost sight of the baby when it slopped out the Blair bathwater, and that coalition exacerbates the problems.  Announcements are delayed, decisions postponed, and some departments are five months behind schedule.

The Prime Minister's clearly decided that enough's enough.  So he's executed one of the biggest U-turns of all, drafting in a head of strategy and a deputy and beefing up his policy unit.  And in the News of the World (£), Fraser Nelson writes about a three-part plan to accompany it.  Phase One (currently under way) is to "deal with fat-cat council leaders".  Phase Two to take the fight to NHS officials who cut services rather than waste.  And Phase Three is to deal with Balls by getting "better at political arguments".

The aim, Nelson writes, is "to minimise the damage for the Tories in the May local elections".  Andrew Cooper, the new head of strategy, will try to give the Government a sense of direction (whatever happened to: "Together in the National Interest?) while the job of Paul Kirby, heading a beefed-up Policy Unit, is "to cut the U-turn rate - currently a calamitous one per week."  In short, Cameron's acknowledging that he over-reacted against the way Blair ran government.  In doing so, the Prime Minister's marking the end of the first phase of his.


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