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Tuesday, May 29, 2012 

I'm just a pasty.

The media loves a u-turn. Ever since the blessed Margaret Thatcher stood up at the Conservative party conference in 1980 and declared that she was not for turning (even though she was, as she was later to claim that she had never adhered to monetarism), the political about face has been focused on as being uniquely embarrassing. After all, what use is a politician if they don't have the strength of their convictions? Even though we might often change our minds, once a member of parliament has spoken their words may as well have been set in stone; any subsequent dilution, or even alteration in tone is there waiting to be seized on. It's also not just an issue on these shores: over in those United States John Kerry was repeatedly berated in 2004 for "flip-flopping", while Mitt Romney, having been governor of liberal Massachusetts before becoming the Republican presidential nominee has disassociated himself from many of the positions and policies he previously espoused.

It's fair to say that the coalition's decision to row back on both the pasty and static caravan taxes announced in the budget are of a completely different degree of magnitude to Romney no longer being pro-choice or supporting public healthcare. The issue ought to be not so much that they've decided not to push the changes through as it is that they imagined they were far too clever to be caught out in such a way. As a blog post from Damian McBride pointed out, these were changes that looked to have been suggested by civil servants, both of which had been discussed during Gordon Brown's time as chancellor, and repeatedly rejected as being either too difficult to implement, or downright counter-productive. It looks as though so much effort had gone into debating the twin key policies of raising the income tax threshold and lowering the top rate of tax to 45p that the rest hadn't been thought through properly.

Even so, the idea that the pasty tax was a bad idea is nonsense. The entire point was that the likes of Greggs and supermarkets are competing with takeaways, and so not charging VAT on rotisserie chickens or steak bakes was unfair on them, as indeed it is. The other failure was in not realising what an open goal this would be, both to Labour, and to the Sun, currently intent on punishing Cameron for the Leveson inquiry. The Sun couldn't really give a stuff about pasties or Greggs, but seeing as it imagines every reader of the paper to be a beer-swilling, pie-chomping, England supporting overweight illiterate it made perfect sense to campaign on it. John Harris for his part makes a convincing case that the static caravan tax would have been far more damaging, although it's always worth being sceptical of the claims of industry as to how many jobs would be lost should they not get their way. And what with Francis Maude talking about jerry cans and garages and then Nadine Dorries being Nadine Dorries, it helped to underline that the cabinet, amazing as it might seem, isn't very representative of Britain as a whole.

Despite the inevitable media reaction, for the most part the electorate respect politicians changing their minds when they do it modestly and for the right reasons. The difficult part is knowing when the best time to make your u-turn is: do it too early and you give the impression that you're reacting in fright, while if you do it too late then the damage is often already done. Doing it during a parliamentary recess, as the coalition has, is downright cowardly. It also makes a mockery of ramming it through parliament as part of the budget only to then withdraw it later. In this instance it looks more like an act of political calculation, realising that government's problems really began with the budget (although frankly the real problem is the economy, which they refuse to alter their position on a jot), and that turning around might go some way to altering the polls, rather than changing tack for the right reasons.

The reality of the situation is shown in the approach to the justice and security bill, where another, very slight u-turn has been performed. No longer will the government ask for the power to order inquests to be held in secret in cases where the catch-all "national security" principle can be invoked. As a concession supposedly brokered by Nick Clegg, it's pathetic. The bill will still ensure that the equivalent of the "seven paragraphs" will never be released again, even when far more damning material has been heard in foreign courts as it had in Binyam Mohamed's case. For a coalition that came to power promising an inquiry into the security services' complicity in torture, one which has since been dropped, this is the most craven behaviour, and something that will tarnish it for far longer than the pasty tax will. They're for turning, but not where they desperately need to.

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