I’m not entirely sure that when Margaret Thatcher declared “you turn if you want to” she quite realised that her successor but one as a Conservative prime minister would take her words so literally.
David Cameron’s government seems to be doing nothing else these days.
I wrote here recently that the chancellor would be forced to backtrack on his changes to working tax credit, and after days of denial from the Treasury it is clear the Autumn Statement will see the changes significantly watered down.
Theresa May has already had to climb down over the powers in her Investigatory Powers Bill, the so-called ‘snoopers’ charter’. The Bill will still allow agencies to look into every citizen’s internet and social media activity, but subject to much greater restrictions than were first suggested.
And the weekend papers carried hints that Nicky Morgan will tell teachers that the tests the government proposed for seven- and 11-
year-olds, which were a key plank in the reform agenda of her predecessor Michael Gove, would be reviewed - which, of course, means watered down.
The PM himself is under enormous pressure from his own backbenchers to make clear what his bottom line is in his negotiations for a better deal from Europe. While it is clear Cameron’s own preference is for the UK to remain, opinion polls suggest support for the ‘leave’ campaign is growing, not least on the back of the migrant crisis, which has underlined fears that Brussels and not the UK government would control our borders.
All this is a far cry from the heady days of May when to everyone’s surprise - including his own - Cameron became prime minister of a majority Conservative government. We were told that Labour simply could not win in 2020. The Liberal Democrats were so badly mauled that they would be irrelevant - one prediction that appears to be true. UKIP for all its sound and fury actually lost one of its two seats. I argued then that a study of history would be pertinent. In 1992, the press said that if Labour could not beat the Tories after they had been in office for 13 years, they could never beat them. Five years later it was the Tories who were out of power for a generation.
Cameron and Osborne appear consumed by politics rather than economics and have stumbled as a result. Yet on all the evidence, the government’s poll ratings are well ahead of the opposition. Whatever else, Cameron is clearly a lucky prime minister and not least in his main opponents’ choice of leader. Neither Gordon Brown nor Ed Miliband had much popular appeal and Jeremy Corbyn is now the least popular leader in Labour’s history. Recent polls show his ratings falling even further and his recent comments about not bothering to commemorate the First World War won’t have helped.
On competence, the PM continues to enjoy a substantial lead. But that gives this government time to pause and reflect. There is much more to unwind from Osborne’s budgets. Housing associations deserve to know where they stand on the right to buy and on rents. The impact on stamp duty land tax of recent changes at the top end of the residential market need to be understood and we surely need more detail on how the proposed changes to business rates will actually work. The same is true of permitted development rights. We have planning minister Brandon Lewis’s belated announcement but no more and, as ever, the devil is in the detail.
That is, of course, precisely what Osborne will now recognise. Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted. Worry less about today and think about the long term. Change only what needs to be changed. Don’t tinker. Oh, and don’t try to be too clever either. It never works.
Steve Norris is chairman of the National Planning and Infrastructure Association and of Soho Estates