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Tuesday 29th May 2012 | 10:12
Ken Clarke was in Classic Ken mode today as he tried a lofty dismissal of the Government’s U-turn troubles with a metaphorical wave of his cigar:
“Public consultation is public consultation – I rather approve of it. We’re going through a rather silly, clichéd phase where every time the Government modifies proposals it’s been consulting on, it’s accused of having a shambles and a U-turn. There are actually bigger things going on in the political world.
“Personally I rather like the process of going out and asking people and then modifying what you’ve done – we haven’t done any great U-turns.”
Nice try, but no cigar, Ken.
The Justice Secretary is admirably intolerant of fads and frenzies but his words just don’t square with the sheer volume of U-turns, J-turns, handbrake turns and other concessions squeezed out over the first two years of the Coalition.
Clarke would have a half a point if he was talking about mere draft bills or greener-than-green paper proposals. But in many cases, the changes have been to measures that are further down the track than that, not least in a Finance Bill. The NHS Bill was a monumental failure of pre-legislative process and wasted hours of Parliamentary time having to be unpicked.
There is a wider problem: why consult on daft or flawed proposals in the first place? Shouldn’t their flaws be spotted well before you go public? That’s why the ‘Utter Shambles’ (Labour has wisely dropped the beltway ‘omnishambles’) and ‘Out of Touch’ attacks resonate.
Pasties, caravans, secret courts: David Cameron has clearly decided to get several U-turns out of the way all at once during recess. And as the PM prepares for a short staycation (no, he’s not going to Cornwall folks) ahead of his formal duties for the Diamond Jubilee, there is a sense of clearing the decks and some hope that the Coalition can finally move on from one of the most politically inept Budgets of modern times.
In many cases, it is the very popular newspapers that Ken Clarke loathes that have forced ministers into U-turns. Even Clarkey had to eat humble pie for the Mail today on secret courts.
Given all the talk at Leveson about the influence of the press, it’s worth pointing out just how powerful a really well-run newspaper campaign can be in mobilising public opinion. Although several papers vented their spleen, the Sun pushed hard on pastytax and the Mail hard on secret courts and have been rewarded with concessions.
What’s new is that in many cases, social media like Twitter and Facebook also ensured these were mass campaigns hitting big numbers of people rapidly and in realtime. The #pastytax is indeed shortlisted for our PolHome Awards Hashtag of the Year*.
In the case of the ‘caravan tax’, it was Parliament rather than the press that really pushed it. The Government suffered its second lowest majority when this was voted on (just 25) and several Tory backbenchers rebelled. But when an adjournment debate was held by the normally loyal Graham Stuart, there were a further 20 helpful interventions from fellow Tories who hadn’t voted against the Government.
That was a serious danger signal to the Whips worried about a Lab-Tory alliance of Yorkshire MPs (whose constituencies would be hit hardest). Labour sought to exploit the divisions by laying down a motion just before recess, to be heard on June 13. Just as importantly, Stuart and other Tories had ensured that the Statutory Instrument on this change would be taken on the floor of the whole House. That in itself spelled trouble but it was all heartening proof that Parliament still matters.
The charity tax looks like the next U-turn, (or as Ken Clarke would call it, a reasoned change made after listening to consultation). It’s just a question of timing now.
Will there be any movement on the 'granny tax'? Or the even more important fuel duty rise (another area where the Chancellor has shown a tin ear to complaints)?
Paul Goodman has blogged at ConHome with the very good point that loyal Government MPs must be feeling a bit fed up at the U-turns, particularly given that many of them have had to defend them in their local papers while rebel backbenchers have a field day.
Margaret Thatcher famously said ‘You turn if you want to, the lady’s not for turning’. David Cameron’s motto over the past two years seems to have been ‘I’ll turn whenever I want to, the Dave is ready for turning’.
Bruce Anderson was onto something when he recently described the PM as an 'inveterate English pragmatist',
Of course, on the really big stuff – the deficit, the 50p tax cut and Plan A for the economy – we’re told Dave is not for turning.
But the new emphasis in recent weeks on growth and extending credit easing mean that even on the economy there is a different tone, if not a different track.
Let’s see if the pubic is as forgiving as Ken Clarke hopes.
You can still vote for your Hashtags of the Year HERE in the PolHome Awards. #pastytax will still have to fend off #horsegate, #telldaveeverything, #godisgove and #winning.
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