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Do U-turns damage the reputation of the Government or not? To take a topical example, will George Osborne's about-turn on fuel duty be viewed by voters as a evidence that Downing Street is listening or that it is weak? Does it matter that Conservative MPs have a particular reason for not liking U-turns, because it leaves them exposed after they have defended the Government's original position?
Lord Lawson's answer is that they are generally a bad thing. Interviewed today by Fraser Nelson on the Westminster hour, he will say that while the charities about-turn was a good thing, the rest of the Chancellor's budget U-turns were not: "The other things, if it had been me, I would have carried on with. I think they're perfectly justifiable and the idea that you might be in disarray or retreat is not something that you want anybody to think."
‘If I had been in his shoes I would not have deferred the petrol tax. I think it is now essential that, in January, he does do it.’ Lord Lawson's remarks are significant in that Mr Osborne went to great trouble as Shadow Chancellor to court the real Chancellors of the Thatcher and Major years – Lord Howe, Lord Lamont and Lord Lawson himself – and will regard it as essential that they be kept on-side. Most damaging for the Chancellor is the suggestion from his predecessor that enough Government U-turns could threaten Britain's credit rating. Here are his words:
"That is my concern; that it might be thought that the main thrust of policy is no longer secure. And once the financial markets – let alone anyone else – think the government is on the run, then the task of maintaining the policy is very much harder."
The Spectator Editor has not only drawn this view from one of his former predecessors, but has provided a separate explanation for why David Cameron thinks they don't matter. It lies, Mr Nelson claims, with Andrew Cooper, Downing Street's Head of Strategy: "Drop an unpopular policy, he argues, and ministers may well be teased in the newspapers for two days. But in the real world, voters will be pleased that their leaders are listening." Mr Cooper's view will be backed up by polling evidence – unsurprisingly, since he is a former (and doubtless future) professional pollster.
This is all part and parcel of a view which holds that since many voters are alienated from party politics and don't read the print media, all that really matters for a Government's reputation are bad stories – and especially bad pictures – for Ministers on TV. It therefore follows that angering the majority of Tory MPs who'd defended the planned fuel rise isn't really important. And that newspaper campaigns against Ministers such as the Sun's against the Chancellor – which continues this morning as it finds him the paper's "Villian of the Week" – don't matter all that much either.
Mr Cooper's polling is doubtless right to suggest that newspaper and blog stories are like straws, but the old saying about straws and breaking and camels' backs none the less applies. Very simply, there can come a point where a view of a Government, like an disease, breaks out of the Westminster Village and becomes contagious: this, after all, is what happened to John Major's administration, which became framed by the ERM crash and tax rises that followed. And once impressions form, they can be impossible to shake off.
Sir John's image as a nowhere man sitting in his nowhere land was projected on television – on Spitting Image. But it was formed first in a thousand contemptuous newspaper front page splashes, analysis pieces, opeds and editorials. Mr Cooper would say that the papers reach less far than in the 1990s – even though they've been joined by the blogs – to which an answer is that although this is right they still touch many millions of voters. So a coming Government U-turn on a banking inquiry – which is more likely than not – would be another straw on that camel's back.
This would come in addition to U-turns on fuel, pasties, charities, caravans, church renovations, forests, buzzards, rape anonymity, free milk, bookstart, school sports…the list stretches on. Some of these are more major about-faces than others, but taken all together they suggest that Mr Cameron is near a tipping-point on U-turns. The lady wasn't for turning. It would damage the Prime Minister greatly were voters to believe that the gentleman is. The one U-turn I think he won't make will be on an In-Out referendum, which he again indicated his hostility to yesterday.
This is for the simple reason that he knows an In-Out poll would split his party, while a renegotiation one would keep in together. I've written before that we are inching nearer such a referendum, and the letter demanding a poll of some kind organised by John Baron, which gained the backing of over 100 Tory MPs, has done nothing to change my mind. Mr Cameron will find it very hard to keep such a commitment out of the next Tory manifesto, particularly given the views of his Chancellor, not to mention the latter's leadership ambitions…