David Cameron believes his propensity to abandon unpopular policies is a “sign of strength”. On that reckoning, the prime minister is on course to lead one of the strongest governments in recent times.
Mr Cameron was in breezy form at a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday, insisting that his volte face on sentencing policy – which came hot on the heels of his about-turn on health – was a sign of political maturity.
“This government is extremely strong, resolute and determined,” he said. “The weak thing would have been to keep ploughing on.”
Mr Cameron’s ability to focus on the big picture is seen by allies as one of his greatest assets. The prime minister believes that his government will be judged on whether it got its biggest call right: the economy.
But the sentencing episode provides another glimpse into the inner workings of an administration that seems increasingly incapable of judging the public mood, let alone leading public opinion.
The plan to offer 50 per cent sentence “discounts” for offenders – including rapists – who plead guilty early was signed off by a home affairs cabinet committee chaired by Nick Clegg, deputy prime minister, and featured almost every senior minister, including George Osborne, the chancellor.
The coalition’s three most notable retreats to date – on the planned public forestry sell-off, the bungled NHS reforms and on prison sentencing – have all followed the same pattern and illustrate the same failings.
In each case Mr Cameron and his ministers displayed a tin ear over likely public and professional opposition to what they were proposing. That was then compounded by a lack of Downing Street oversight and a dismal failure to sell the policy.
Caroline Spelman, environment secretary, Andrew Lansley, health secretary, and Ken Clarke, justice secretary, all failed to win the argument that their reforms were desirable in their own right and were not just cost-cutting measures.
Mr Cameron’s retreat on sentencing was an acknowledgement of that political mis-selling: “Public confidence is not a side issue – it is the issue,” he said.
The prime minister said he was going to “disappoint” those waiting for the traditional summer cabinet reshuffle, but all three ministers may not survive a ministerial cull planned for spring 2012.
The prime minister’s “strength” may turn into a weakness if his critics on the Tory and Liberal Democrat backbenches – not to mention the tabloid press – start to believe they can push him over whenever an unpopular policy hoves into view.
Mr Osborne is well aware of that danger. He made it clear that if Mr Clarke retreated on his sentencing reforms he would have to find £130m from elsewhere in his budget, probably in the probation or courts services.
Other ministers have been told that if they are inclined to wobble, they will not find a sympathetic ear in the Treasury. Mr Osborne is determined that policy flexibility does not translate into backsliding on deficit reduction.
Mr Cameron’s decision has delighted critics on the Tory right and in newspapers such as the Daily Mail and The Sun, apparently reaffirming his credentials as a Conservative prime minister who is capable of standing up to the Liberal Democrats.
There may have been an element of Mr Cameron navigating his way through coalition politics: his retreat on the NHS delighted the Lib Dems; now it was time to throw some red meat to his own party.
But Mr Clegg, in São Paulo for the start of a a two-day trade trip to Brazil, was never likely to go to the wire to defend lighter prison sentences for rapists, murderers and paedophiles.
Backing the retreat, he said: “I am very comfortable with it. I was never wedded to 50 per cent reductions for guilty pleas.”
Mr Clegg added: “I would much rather be part of the government that listens and gets things right than a government that gets things wrong.”
He was not, however, about to take the blame for the latest policy reverse. “The policy was badly sold from the beginning,” said one source close to the deputy prime minister.