David Cameron is starting to get something of a reputation for screeching hand-brake turns that leave observers, and many of his MPs, with their heads spinning.
True, so far, most of these U-turns have been on relatively minor issues. Forests, school milk, free books, all emotive but relatively small beer. And on some issues – like University funding and tuition fees – the government has stood firm despite widespread protests.
So, is Mr Cameron the Listening Leader or the Panicky Premier? The jury is still out. Certainly some are already scent blood. The TUC has already come out saying that the governments’ turning over of a new leaf on forestry policy suggests they are vulnerable. This may be wishful thinking from the brothers and sisters, and it may be the massed ranks of the Amalgamated Union of Tree Huggers has a bit more clout than the depleted ranks of the real trades unions. But there are many ‘little platoons’ out there over specific issues, that may turn into a more formidable force if something turns up to unite them.
And of course the really big issues that will affect the daily lives of millions – the cuts, health, education and benefits reforms – have yet to start really biting.
Mrs Thatcher, it should be remembered, was very much for turning when it suited her. Thatcher actually played a very tactical game during her decade in power, backing away from confrontations over things like the first miners strike and public sector pay. She started very slowly with the privatization program, only doing council housing in her first term and then starting on nationalized industries one at time in her second. She was adept at wars of maneuver.
The Coalition government, by contrast, has set out on a war of position – the scale of cuts and reforms in many areas at once is breathtaking. They are already learning, the hard way, that wars of attrition can prove extremely costly. They are burning political capital on the small stuff they may well regret later when they need it for the big issues. So far we have only has skirmishes and a phony war and already they have allowed an appearance to develop that they are not quite as steadfast as they would like people to think. Whether this turns out to have been a good tactical game, or the first signs of catastrophes to come, only time will tell.