When faced by the cut and thrust of a noisy House of Commons chamber, cabinet ministers can find it difficult to execute a government U-turn without incurring political damage and a bruised reputation.
Michael Gove’s about turn over his plan to scrap the GCSE school exam system was billed in advance as a humiliating retreat. But the Secretary of State for Education managed to deliver a text book display of humility (7.2.2013) which took the sting out of what might otherwise have been a painful appearance before MPs.
Given the live transmission of parliamentary proceedings on radio, television and now the internet – and the inevitable trailing of most announcements in advance – political commentators and pundits have increasingly had to fall back on analysing the performance of a minister rather than the content of his or her statement.
Journalists are quick to rate an apology. Was it a trite “I’m sorry” with no indication of what precisely the minister was apologising for? Did a grudging, belligerent admission follow a previous attempt to “bury bad news?” Was the minister just passing the buck, blaming everyone else?
As a former journalist with The Times, the Secretary of State knew that the news media would show him no mercy if he failed to give an upfront account – and take full personal responsibility – for the government’s change of mind over his much-trumpeted proposals for the introduction of English Baccalaureate Certificates.
In the event Gove was not only prepared to take his punishment on the chin but eager to accept blame for what he said had been “a bridge too far”. Within the space of a few minutes he trotted out every conceivable cliché:
“This was one reform too many...I have decided not to make the best the enemy of the good.” Later on the World at One on Radio 4, he enlarged on his mea culpa: “I was far too ambitious...This was a proposal dear to my heart but it wasn’t appropriate to press ahead with this reform...I am a man in a hurry...When pushing too far too fast, when the shoe pinches, you have to acknowledge it...I bit off more than I could chew.”
After overloading his U-turn with so much contrition Gove had no hesitation in deflecting the demand of Labour’s shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg that he should say “sorry” to school pupils across the country who felt their work had been dumbed down by Gove’s trashing of the GCSE exam system.
Instead Gove tried to make a virtue of his refusal to apologise. He said politics was about having a clear vision. If a politician could bring people along with steps being proposed – with the odd retreat here and there – but then reach a consensus, that was the goal of every political reformer.
Needless to say Gove’s U-turn ensured him a good kicking in next morning’s national newspapers but much of the coverage was devoted to the need to reform what the minister had called the “broken exam system” which coalition ministers had inherited from the previous Labour government.
Gove was reminded in no uncertain terms of his own ineptitude in pressing ahead for so long with a reform programme which had failed to win the approval of teachers and examiners. Nonetheless much of the commentary acknowledged his honesty in taking the blame.
The shrewdness of his presentation strategy had paid handsome dividends. In many ways it was a master class in the art of the U-turn and the reportage reflected that. Few spin doctors would have marked him down on that performance!
Illustration: Daily Mirror 8.2.2013