32 U-turns? The Government is divided, distracted and directionless
One might expect a marriage of convenience between two political parties to show occasional signs of tension. But the fissures are as evident within each party as they are between, with Lord Oakeshott (et al.) opposing Nick Clegg on health reforms and taxation; and senior Cabinet ministers like Iain Duncan Smith opposing George Osborne on the Budget.
Divisions can, of course, be healthy, for without vigorous differences of opinion and robust debate there would never be any development in policy. And the strongest democratic political parties are, of necessity, broad coalitions of the perpetually competing, irreconcilably pacified and mutually exclusive. But it is one thing to argue over philosophical points of policy; quite another to be seen to be blown this way and that by superficial psephology and political expedience.
The distractions are self-inflicted wounds rather than unforeseen ‘events’, ranging from forests to pasties; from Leveson to Lords reform; from VAT on churches to caps on charity; from the confidence-eroding drip-drip-drip of drinks, dinners and discussions with Coulson, Brooks and Murdoch, which is killing off SpAds and about to claim a ministerial scalp (subject to his Leveson performance today).
And the Government appears directionless in just about every policy area except education and welfare reform, where Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith have their eyes firmly fixed on the finishing line and are sweeping aside all opposition (including Sir Humphrey) in their wake. But these rocks of progress are being drowned in a sea of U-turns. Guido says 26; the Telegraph says 32. Whatever, it's about 25 too many.
There is nothing wrong with a U-turn per se: it is sensible to be flexible when the facts change. One may lose a little face, but stubborn belligerence is far more damaging than a little humble pie. Yet it must be observed that these coalition U-turns are not born of changed facts or unforeseen occurrences: they are a simple consequence of incompetence. In government, it is important to make policy decisions and then advocate, argue and persuade sceptics to your point of view. Of course, ‘events’ (such as war or economic turmoil) might force a re-evaluation of policy (such as defence spending or fiscal tightening). But there is nothing now known about forests, school milk, circus animals, secret courts, Cornish pasties, conservatories or caravans that was not known before. Of course, Government spokesmen tour the TV studios to tell us that the U-turns are a consequence of their listening and caring: in fact, they are evidence of quite the opposite.
On Question Time recently, Nigel Farage observed that ‘we’re being run by a bunch of college kids’. The leaders of all parties long since graduated from their almae matres, and yet the widespread perception remains that of inexperience, ignorance, teenage exuberance and immaturity. As Britain's Apostolic Nuncio observed on one particularly contentious policy (yet to be U-turned): “...it is quite clear that the Government has not thought through the implications of the changes they are proposing.” This is manifestly true of 26 or 32 policy proposals, so far. And David Cameron is not yet even half-way through his period in office.
The Lady, of course, wasn't for turning. But they don't seem to make them like that any more.