Rashford 1, Johnson 0: A tale of government U-turns

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How to best summarise the undertakings, handling and thus scrutiny of Her Majesty’s Government in recent months? Biting down on my tongue to avoid regurgitating The Thick of It’s “omnishambles” labelling, I’ll instead settle for “indefinite”. Headed by an oxymoron personified (pun intended) as the buffoonish-Oxford graduate, Boris Johnson is producing U-turn after U-turn. Knee-deep in a global pandemic and suffering the worst national recession in British history — as well as in any G7 country — policy would understandably face increased backlash and be more challenging to land.  

While this element of Conservative pragmatism may be respected by some in changing with the socio-political climate, Westminster above all needs unity, clarity, and certainty in its approach to governing, setting aside party politics to prioritise the nation.

Westminster needs unity, clarity, and certainty in its approach to governing

Recently, footballer Marcus Rashford landed the Government a second U-turn after urging the Prime Minister to reverse and expand on his decisions to deny meal support vouchers to disadvantaged students during the Christmas holidays. Rashford spoke out about his experiences of childhood poverty and the struggles he faced during the holidays in a letter to MPs, while fronting a campaign with these issues at heart. As a result, Johnson is not only backtracking on this policy but has outlined a £170 million grant scheme during the winter for affected families. This is surely good news — but it should not take an influential sportsman bringing the issue into the public eye to defeat food poverty, especially among children.  

When the Prime Minister yields complacently to a public persona, more so than to the government’s opposition, should we not be worried about the legitimacy or thought behind government decree, or are we rather witnessing a gradual rejection of mainstream political institutions? In any case, the fruits of Rashford’s campaign include seeing more than 200 independent and chain restaurants providing free school meals for school children over half term.  

The government is estimated to have made around 15 U-turns to date. That is 15 times that Johnson has back-pedalled on inadequate policy not fit enough to carry through. Leader of the opposition, Sir Keir Starmer, labelled this handling as “serial incompetence”. That said, is a change of heart necessarily a bad thing? The Conservatives adhering to their “pragmatic” principles is not entirely novel; ideologically speaking, the rational decision to go with what works during unprecedented times is more or less warranted and justifiable. Often, Conservative governments will look back to their predecessors at the ‘tried and tested,’ yet amid a period so unforeseen — a pragmatic approach is imperative. More broadly, this brings into question the issue of party politics, in that to-ing and fro-ing between policy is currently being favoured over effective governing. The people need clarity. 

Among the significant timeline of recent government U-turns is the policy of face masks in schools, which the government stepped down on in August of this year, as well as the scrapping of A-Level and GCSE predictions the same month. A YouGov survey on 17th August expressed the discontent of the nation as 75% of Britons, including 69% of Conservative voters, agreed that the UK government handled student exam results poorly and should be held to account. Johnson similarly went back to the drawing board after spending millions on a Covid-19 contact tracing app — only to succumb to the tech giants’ model instead. As you read this, we are still in the midst of a national lockdown; a second national lockdown that the Prime Minister repeatedly ruled out in previous addresses. “Let us try to avoid the misery of another national lockdown”, Johnson assured the Commons, “which he [Sir Keir Starmer] would want to impose.” 

The Government is estimated to have made around 15 U-turns to date

The government has undeniably gone back on their pledges time and time again — much to the disappointment, disarray and confusion of the nation. However, in justifying these withdrawals, so to speak, such decisions are being made in the national interest: a second national lockdown to help circumvent the rising infection rates, revisited exam predictions to favour a system that is more just, free school meals for poverty alleviation among children, etc. 

The question that remains, why is the Government incapable of effecting these decisions on the first attempt? In effect, this can be put down to ill-conceived decision-making and increased public scrutiny at large. 

Johnson may be acting during a global virus outbreak, but if he continues with this trend, he could well be dealt a red card. 

Image: by Matt Brown via Flickr

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