David Cameron is fond of saying that u-turns are not a problem, they are actually a sign of strength and a government that listens to voters and is willing to change its mind.
He may be right: voters stuck with him through a spate of u-turns early in the government’s life – on selling off national forests, on GP commissioning, on sentencing. But today we have three in one day – will this now start to look like a government that doesn’t know what it’s doing?
The key may lie in the way in which the u-turn is handled. When he announced he was abandoning plans to offer 50 per cent discounts on sentences for offenders who offer guilty pleas, Ken Clarke united the House in laughter by telling MPs:
I have done a few u-turns in my time, and they should be done with purpose and panache when you have to do them.
This is exactly the way Clarke has gone about his u-turn today on secret courts.
In a gracious article in the Daily Mail, which has campaigned against his plans to let inquests be heard behind closed doors, he writes:
The Daily Mail has done a service to the public interest.
But the other two government u-turns, which are currently being executed by the Treasury, have been handled rather less convincingly. On the controversial pasty tax, we are told that hot takeaway food will be taxable only if it is served from a heated cabinet or tray. If it is placed on a cool rack first, it will not have VAT levied on it.
This complicated and partial u-turn only muddies the “purpose and panache” of which Clarke spoke. The Treasury estimates it will be able to keep £70m of the £110m the policy was supposed to raise, but could be thwarted if takeaway outlets find easy ways round the tax (placing the item only briefly on the cooling rack, for example). And we have a situation that was even more complicated than the original situation.
On caravans, the tax is being reduced from 20 per cent to 5 per cent. That takes the amount raised to a maximum of £15m – a piddling sum in terms of government spending, making the policy nigh-on incomprehensible.
What’s more, since the u-turns were briefed last night to journalists, there has been no sign of George Osborne – instead David Gauke, the tax minister, has been defending the government’s position.
Osborne could learn a thing or two from Clarke, who was on the most prominent slot on the Today programme explaining his move and eating some humble pie – with side orders of purpose and panache.