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Too many U-turns and the Government will have trouble inspiring the confidence of its own MPs, let alone the public

By Jonathan Isaby
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U-turn week In this ToryDiary post on Wednesday, Tim identified a problem that the Government whips are going to find increasingly prevalent if there are many more Coalition U-turns:

Talking to a Conservative MP last night... he warned that the Coalition's dizzying inability to stick to a course was threatening backbench discipline. One day, he said, the whips are asking us to write letters to constituents defending the government's plans to reform school sports funding, the EMA, forestry privatisation, the NHS... and the next day they are abandoning or diluting those plans. "Ten times bitten, eleventh time shy," he said. Tory MPs simply won't get up in the Commons and defend controversial reforms if they are going to be made to look silly.

Claims that Eric Pickles has agreed to end his fight for weekly bin collections won't make them feel any more secure, and in the Daily Mail, which has the story this morning, Iain Martin's column labels Andrew Cooper, who's in charge of Downing Street's polling, "Mr U-turn" in recognition of his role in pausing Andrew Lansley's health bill.

Over the last few days I have been talking to a number of Tory MPs to ascertain the gravity of these issues, and I certainly sense a lot of concern among usually loyal backbenchers along exactly the same lines as those outlined by Tim's source.

"When I get a torrent of emails about a controversial issue now, I leave them for seven days before replying, because there's an increasing chance that the line is going to change, " said one MP with whom I discussed the matter.

Another is using a longer timescale: "I let the letters and emails on anything where there's a hint of U-turn pile up for thirty days. Frankly I don't want to make myself look stupid by defending a policy only for it to change a few days later".

Meanwhile, others are just getting more reluctant to go into bat for the Government at all when responding to constituents opposed to whatever aspect of policy is making waves, as yet another explains: "I'll take the official line but only use it in the context of explaining what the Prime Minister or relevant minister is saying. I won't put those words into the first person".

In fact the only MP I spoke to who welcomed the tendency to U-turn was one of the most rebellious backbenchers, who took heart in seeing Government policies being dumped after very public debates on the issues. I sensed that it gave succour to his desire to see further reversals on other commitments.

All of which ought to be a concern for those at the highest eschelons of a government barely a year into its life.

It is a worry that already there is already enough material to work with for the Mirror to be able to publish The Coalition's Top Ten U-Turns.

There will of course be times when the Government is right to reverse a policy; but it ought be avoiding getting itself into the position where it needs to do so in the first place.

Returning to my lessons from the Forests Fiasco in February, it really is vital that there is political focus and careful consideration of the likely consequences of policy announcements before they are even made, and that the case is publicly put that there is a problem needing to be addressed before talking about the solution, at which some may instinctively baulk.

On Thursday the Guardian summarised the careful path the Government has to tread:

"A government can readily make a virtue of policy U-turns, saying they are a sign of a listening, flexible government. But when they become so frequent, and the noxious fumes of burning rubber become overwhelming, judicious flexibility starts to look more like careless driving or – even worse for a prime minister – weakness."

And away from causing backbenchers to be less willing to defend the Government, that's the other potential problem associated with recurring U-turnitis: people will begin to see an administration lacking confidence in its own judgement, thereby failing to inspire a wider public confidence.

We are by no means at that stage yet and, crucially, in terms of the most important issue facing the Government - the deficit - George Osborne et al are robustly staying the economic course, and rightly so.

But there is that danger ahead if the Government is not careful.


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