OPINION: What has caused the death of the U-turn?

When the history of political PR comes to be written, the Blair Government will excite inordinate interest. This is partly because it is the first British Government to complement its obsession with presentation with organisation. It will also be fascinating to generations of PhD students because of how it overplayed its hand. And it will amaze analysts by how much it got away with for so long in its relations with the media. This, in turn, will prompt a whole crop of theses on what went wrong with the press, radio and TV in 1997 - or, to put it more neutrally, why their razor-sharp critical faculties, honed in John Major’s years, fell blunt overnight with a change of regime.

When the history of political PR comes to be written, the Blair

Government will excite inordinate interest. This is partly because it is

the first British Government to complement its obsession with

presentation with organisation. It will also be fascinating to

generations of PhD students because of how it overplayed its hand. And

it will amaze analysts by how much it got away with for so long in its

relations with the media. This, in turn, will prompt a whole crop of

theses on what went wrong with the press, radio and TV in 1997 - or, to

put it more neutrally, why their razor-sharp critical faculties, honed

in John Major’s years, fell blunt overnight with a change of regime.



I don’t propose to offer my theories in this short column. Instead, I

would like to point up for researchers a chapter heading they might

usefully explore. It is the phenomenon of the U-turn. Ted Heath focused

attention on it in 1972 when, after coming to office as Right-wing

free-market Selsdon man - named after the Croydon hotel where he forged

his philosophy - he turned turtle with unemployment nearing a million

and introduced a fiercely socialist control of prices, incomes and

dividends.



Before Heath, U-turning had been a way of Government life. Harold Wilson

and Jim Callaghan subsequently ducked and weaved to try to keep afloat

as the country lurched from one crisis to the next. And I spent the

first two and a half Thatcher years playing spot-the-U-turn with the

Lobby until she told her party conference: ’You turn if you want to. The

lady’s not for turning’. That didn’t stop ’em looking for one but it did

slightly reduce the expectation.



Since 1997, the media have fairly regularly spotted U-turns of a sort

but it is now clear after Chancellor Gordon Brown’s latest Budget that

their ability to do so is not what it was. Indeed, they remind me of an

ageing, cataract-afflicted bird watcher who can’t recognise a cock

sparrow at five feet. After all, Chancellor Brown executed a massive

U-turn in chucking money at the public services and, according to the

Times and Telegraph, another pounds 20 billion at the NHS alone over

four years.



Of course, the commentators noticed this. Indeed Andrew Marr, in the

Express, wrote: ’We once more have a Labour Government’. The Mirror

said: ’This is true Labour’. And the Telegraph on the morrow concluded:

’When the history of this Government is written, yesterday will surely

go down as the point at which New Labour finally gave way to Old’. In

other words, they were testifying to a massive U-turn. And yet they did

not express it in those journalistic terms. I wonder why. U-turn is

still a highly convenient shorthand, fitting easily into a headline

What has happened to our media bloodhound with its sensitive nose for

U-turns? Why did this dog not bark in the night of 21 March 2000?



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