Last week’s “green c**p” folly was rather dismal. I wrote a post about it at the time. The issue wasn’t so much whether Cameron had or hadn’t said those words, but more that they sum up one of his most grievous flaws. One minute, he’s a committed green ranger, defining himself and his party by their environmentalism. The next, he’s a hard-headed energy pragmatist, who barely signs up to any of that stuff. Or is he? No, maybe, yes, don’t know. It leaves you wondering how tightly David Cameron holds on to any of these convictions of his.
I don’t mention this again just to depress you, but because the flip-floppery highlighted by the “green c**p” story has continued into this week. A couple of days ago, we discovered that the Government is to introduce a cap on the cost of payday loans – despite previously resisting one. And today it’s announced that they’re also looking to consign cigarettes to plain packaging before the next election – despite pledging not to only a few months ago.
If we look at these as simple u-turns, then perhaps it’s not so noteworthy. After all, governments have been known to change their minds – and there’s even a case that this Government has been right to change its mind on several occasions. Sure, it’s not ideal, but it’s also not the worst thing a politician can do with executive power.
But I think they are something more than simple u-turns, at least in appearance. If we look back to George Osborne’s infamously malleable Budget from last year, many of its u-turns were relatively minor and technical; to do with this tax or other, and how it should be imposed. They undermined the Government’s claims to competence, not its claims to convictions. But these latest are different. Whether it’s the Tory leadership’s commitment to green policy, their beliefs about state intervention in markets, or the extent of their paternalism, these latest u-turns cast so much into doubt. Is Cameron an environmentalist, a nanny statist, a free marketer, a pirate, a poet, a pawn or a king? Once again, we’re losing a sense of what he really stands for.
Downing Street aides might say there are mitigating circumstances here: that Cameron didn’t really say “green crap”; that the payday loan cap is to avoid a parliamentary rebellion; and so on. They might also say that, as per the Lynton Crosby plan, they have a clear and unwavering message where it counts. But there’s still a danger in these stories tumbling on one after the other. Whether you agree with the Government’s final policies or not, political leaders tend to look good with convictions – and they can change them far less easily than journalists can.