Why are Conservatives more prone to U turns?

Tom Robinson

November 12, 2021

If you’ve been travelling on Britain’s roads over the past few weeks, it is likely that you will have been met by unwelcome obstacles. You may have had the inconvenience of your journey being delayed by lunatics blocking the M25 and Dover port in the name of climate change (ironically leaving thousands of cars stranded to further pollute their “precious plant”). Even more concerning was the sight of gridlock cars snarled up around local petrol stations.

Such panic led Fleet Street to adopt their favourite turn of phrase that the “army were on standby” ready to feed the nation. Call me a sceptic, but I don’t believe an additional 2000 army personal would relieve the chronic issues that caused this ‘crisis’ – indeed, once the media hysteria died down, it seems the shortages have miraculously disappeared.

What was interesting about this event, was that it forced the government to U-turn once again – extending visas to 5,000 lorry drivers to come and fill vacancies. This is just one recent example of the Johnson’s administration penchant for u-turning. Even this week, the government has been forced to u-turn on its decision to scrap parliamentary standards system due to public anger of political dishonesty. This begs the question: is there something about conservatism or modern politics that makes our government more prone to u-turns?

The bedrock of conservativism as an ideology is pragmatism. Focusing on the needs of today ensures slow and gradual changes to occur. Tweaks to manifesto pledges are part of these changes that ensure the ideology lives and breathes. In contrast, more radical changes under socialism paint a more binary picture of events – it is no surprise that a rigid ideological prism makes flexibility in policy harder. Indeed, such rigidity likely contributed to the failure of the Labour party to take back power from the Conservatives over the past 11 years. A realisation of this may have in part driven Sir Keir Starmer to adopting a more pragmatic tone at Labour party conference. Starmer’s triumph in pushing through much needed leadership reform – adopting a Blair-esque dilution of union powers over the matter – illustrates again a movement towards pragmatism.

With consecutive Conservative Prime Ministers, it is unsurprising that the party has become synonymous with backtracking on previous pledges. In order to U-turn, you need to win the election first!

However, it is not only manifesto pledges that pragmatists must wrestle with. Once in power, governments are increasingly bound by public opinion – even when they secure an 80-seat majority. The electorate respond positively to those who pick a side rather than sit on the fence, even if this means picking the wrong side to begin with. We see this time and again in opinion polls. Despite Johnson often picking a dud, for instance on issues like water sewage, Johnson’s popularity remains relatively stable. What’s more convincing is the fact that when those who fail to adopt such mannerisms, such as Starmer’s silence on the current debate over MP standards, politicians can often fail to cut through. This illustrates that the electorate favours those who adapt to current affairs, rather than those who take a dogmatic, ideological approach.

Marcus Rashford’s campaign on free school meals is a prime example of how a government must sometimes u-turn to yield to its public. It shows that, like governments, the public prefer instant gratification to long term strategic planning. Indeed, the current frequency of policy reversals is a sign of the Prime Minister’s continued use of focus group and public opinion as a barometer to secure his own position.

Instant gratification rather than long term planning can also be seen within the government’s economic policy. Historically the party of low tax and free enterprise, the modern Conservative party lacks an economic ideology. Despite some welcome (and needed) free market changes in the chancellor most recent budget, Whitehall seems wedded to the idea of interventionism. The “levelling up” agenda has acted as a veneer through which the government has justified ditching all the party’s economic prudence.

In a world of instant public feedback, and intense media pressure, u-turns seem inevitable. But they are also, in many ways, a good thing. They ensure the development and progression of the ideology. Without such development, the development of new ideology would not be possible. If Blair hadn’t torn conservatism inside out, we would never have had compassionate conservativism under Hague, which meant we may never have had the election winning ideology of Cameron. Ideological teething issues are good. They prevent staleness and ensure that this country continues to foster a strong parliamentary system.

This style of politics looks like it is here to stay. Starmerism, which is just as difficult to pinpoint as Johnson’s, seems to adopt similar flexibility.

Hopefully future duels at PMQs will become more exciting as a result. If Starmer is able to grow some canines and lock into the PM over his u-turning superpower, we could potentially see some more fireworks within the opinion polls. Thus, the politics of u-turning may only be the beginning, and may soon be diffused across the despatch box.


Written by Tom Robinson

Tom Robinson is an intern at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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