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Don't Look Back in Anger: How to Sell a Policy U-Turn

11/03/2013 22:43 GMT | Updated 11/05/2013 10:12 BST

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It is also - unsurprisingly for a quality so ineffable - entirely elusive. Everything, it is said, is obvious in hindsight; if only it wasn't so illusory we would surely be flawless in the art of decision-making.

Because we lack some kind of retrospective oracle, U-turns are a fact of political life. They always will be too, whether we like it or not, given our political landscape is so prone to unexpected shifts.

The flip-flop, the backtrack, the reversal, the U-turn; all terms that have entered public discourse to describe an intriguing catch-22: Reneging on policy commitments too often is seen as a surefire sign of a weak political will, yet slavery to principle whatever the weather is the defining characteristic of a political bigot in the eyes of the electorate. Very few modern politicians are willing to embrace the fallout from outright refusal to change their mind à la the now legendary Thatcherite mantra: "The lady's not for turning."

The real question is how best to mitigate the consequence of such reneging as a politician, inevitable as these moments will be. Therein, as the bard would say, lies the rub, since even the most fastidious of politicians will at some point be ensnared in the trap of a promise broken, no matter how careful they are to avoid making the kind of spurious guarantees that have landed so many parliamentarians in hot water.

As I see it, there are four principal sales strategies post flip-flop. The first, and altogether least subtle, is to deny that any commitment was made in the first place. I call this the "we never actually said that" move. This plan is fraught with risk; doubtless some canny journalist (usually a broadsheet hack) will dig up some throw away comment made eons ago that proves you did, in fact, actually say that.

Second, you could make a public apology, admitting that your plan was flawed all along. Supposedly, this strategy speaks to the integrity of the politician in question, something along the lines of: "I made the plan, I and I alone am responsible for its failure". Think Ken Clarke's backtrack on criminal justice reform a few years back as exhibit A for this one; the general public was so outraged at proposals that could have seen jail time cut in half for serious offenders that Ken decided it probably wasn't such a good idea after all.

The U-turn is thus cast as a necessary evil to right the sinking ship that is the policy. The politician can pretend everything was well intentioned, but he has listened to you, the man on the street, and you have convinced him that there is a better solution available.

The third and fourth strategies are closely related, both constructed to shift blame away from the policy itself and from the politician who made it. The politician admits they made a pledge. They admit they made it in all sincerity and the most benevolent motivation possible. But unforeseen circumstances, those pesky spanners in the works of government, have foiled their best-laid plans. This ranges from the cringe worthy (Clegg's YouTube apology over tuition fees, apparently a pledge taken out of his hands by Conservatives) to the downright mischievous (Osborne's continual bashing of the Eurozone, apparently in a far worse state than anyone could have possibly conceived at any time previously).

Alternatively, the reason the policy has failed and requires scrapping can be put down to the emergence of some newfangled evidence. "Of course I'm allowed to change my mind", the politician cries "have you not seen the latest report?!" (You would've thought that the Resolution Foundation's research showing that six out of 10 people affected by the coalition's welfare cuts are actually in work would provide just such an excuse for a rethink, but alas).

So, what is a politician to do about the predicament of how to sell their backtrack? Caught between a rock and a hard place, there are no easy answers, and each of the above options risks backfiring spectacularly.

The best way to deal with the U-turn problem, I would argue, is to try and tiptoe the line between slavery to principle and slavery to pragmatics, making it clear to voters as you go that you as a politician have an overarching ideology yet reserve the right to tweak your ideas in light of novel situations.

Obama hit the nail on the head in his second inaugural when he said: "We have always understood that when times change, so must we, that fidelity to our founding principles requires new responses to new challenges... We must act knowing that our work will be imperfect." With these words he gave the electorate an advanced warning: I may not be able to deliver on everything I promise, but you can expect me to make the best of a bad situation, and that will involve the occasional U-turn.

At the very least, one should attempt leave as much political 'wiggle room' as possible, as both Cameron and Miliband have done on the thorny issue of Europe. They did so because the only surefire way to deal with a flip-flop on a policy commitment, in the end, is to avoid making one in the first place. Vacuous language has run roughshod over the debate, leaving as much ambiguity as possible to achieve whatever political ends will suit each party in retrospect.

For the same reason people don't write cheques they know full well could bounce for fear of a negative credit rating, politicians have developed an allergy to writing concrete policies for fear of a negative approval rating years down the line. You can't break a promise that doesn't exist. Problem solved.