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03 Oct 2022

Politics and Society

Alan Wager looks at government U-turns. He highlights that whilst the public is more forgiving of U-turns than usually imagined, the reversal over the top rate of income tax could still be damaging for Liz Truss. 

Humiliating. Screeching. Embarrassing. In British politics, the phrase ‘U-turn’ is inevitably followed by the idea that the act of reversing a policy is nothing short of political hara-kiri. On Sunday, the former Tory minister Eric Pickles said that Truss would be ‘dead in the water without a paddle’ if she ditched the 45p policy.

Less than 24 hours later, the policy was gone. But, whisper it, in theory the public is much more forgiving of political U-turns than what you, or Pickles, might think. Indeed, they quite like politicians that change their minds.

YouGov regularly track what the public think about those in power changing tack, asking respondents to choose between the idea that government U-turns are ‘normally a bad sign – showing they are incompetent, weak, or have not thought their policies through properly in advance’ or ‘a good sign – showing they are willing to listen and change their minds when people complain or situations change’. Less than a month ago, they found that while 30% think U-turns are a negative thing, some 42% look upon U-turns as a healthy sign of a government that listens. Older voters are particularly sympathetic: 58% of those over 65 say U-turns are on the whole a sign that politicians are responsive rather than reckless.

All very well, in theory at least. However, if you wanted to disprove the iron law that government U-turns are universally unpopular, it would be a bad idea to base your brand on the idea you are the Iron Lady redux. Truss’s Chancellor wrote a book on Thatcher with the thesis that Thatcher was rewarded for holding her nerve as the economists and the markets panicked. This element of the Thatcher myth was central to the appeal of Truss to her party. On the day of the U-turn, a Telegraph editorial pronounced that ‘Liz Truss is not for turning’ and a The Spectator read that ‘Liz Truss insists she’s not for turning’.

Leaving aside that Thatcher herself was not immune to a U-turn or two of her own, this idea definitely had some cut-through with the wider public: polling from KetstCNC and JL Partners released this week – but conducted before the crisis hit the new government – found Truss was seen, above all, in both the ‘blue’ and ‘red’ walls as ‘determined’. While the public may have cause to add other adjectives over the last fortnight, they did not – until today – have much reason to doubt the Prime Minister’s determination.

The second problem is that the change will not fully reverse the damage. It is often said that voters have short memories. Paul Johnson of the IFS has made clear that this tax change does not do much at all to address the charge that the ‘mini-budget’ was a decisive move away from fiscal sustainability. The key political issue – that Truss and Kwarteng will be blamed for interest rates being higher than they need to be – will not go away.

The third issue is that the U-turn also points not just to a policy weakness, but to the fragility of the Truss majority. Boris Johnson did not lose a contested vote in the House of Commons after December 2019, even on votes like the Owen Paterson row, when more than enough Tory MPs were privately deeply concerned. Following the churn created by the new government, it is now clear that Tory rebels will be able to find the 31 backbench MPs that they need to vote with the opposition to defeat the government on any unpopular measure Truss brings forward.

We have heard directly from Liz Truss that the problem with the ‘fiscal event’ was comms not policy. While the problems with the mini-budget were more fundamental, this line has been given some credence by the implementation of this U-turn. It was not just the Daily Telegraph hung out to dry by the U-turn: the Conservative Party Chair Jake Berry was touring the conference fringe yesterday suggesting MPs would lose the whip if they voted against the 45p rate.

What this creates is the whiff of panic which is beginning to hang over the Truss administration. It is that – rather than the smell of burning rubber created by a screeching U-turn – that should concern the Conservative faithful in Birmingham this week.

By Dr Alan Wager, Research Associate, UK in a Changing Europe. 

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