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The Pru Letter Factor, Or: Why Backbenchers Hate U-Turns

Last Updated: Friday, June 1st, 2012

There are two contrary views about policy changes  – or U-turns, to put it more vulgarly and scarcely less exactly – of the kind George Osborne has announced this week on pasties, caravans, charities and today, apparently, on skip taxes.

The first is that they show weakness, and a worrying inability to stick to a course.

The second is that they show strength, and a refreshing willingness to listen to voters.

I believe that there’s no universal rule – thinking, as I wrote on ConservativeHome earlier this week, that the Government has acted wisely on charities and unwisely on pasties (having taken all the pain of putting the matter to a Commons vote and succeeding, it seems odd to back off after you’ve won).

But there is one solid reason why backbench MPs always hate U-turns – at least, any relating to a policy they’ve defended locally.  Let me explain.

MPs can’t know everything about everything. So what do they do when they receive an angry e-mail from a constituent about, say, VAT on pies and pasties – knowing nothing, in nearly every case, about “ambient temperature” and the rest of the arcana which envelopes the issue?

I’ll tell you what nearly all of them do.  They send off for the relevant PRU letter.  PRU stands for Parliamentary Resources Unit – a body that helps prove the truth that the more dull a title is, the more partisan the organisation that it describes is likely to be.

The PRU is a research body which exists largely to help Conservative MPs respond to enquiries from constituents of the kind I describe.  There is an equivalent body that assists Labour MPs.

When I was an MP, I sent for PRU letters on the same basis as nearly all my Tory colleagues.  Naturally, they are written on the basis of supporting party policy.

In most cases, I would read the letter, amend it a bit, add a line or two of my own – or sometimes cut a line or two – and send it off my amended version to the constituent.

Now PRU letters are one thing in opposition.  But they’re quite another in Government, since they essentially defend actions that Ministers are taking “in the real world” rather than policy positions the Opposition is dreaming up.

And so it will have come about that most Conservative backbench MPs, having been lobbied by constituents about the pasty tax or the caravans tax or the charities tax or the skips tax, will have reached for the relevant PRU letter with the unquestioning instinct of a man reaching for an umbrella.

As I did in my time, these MPs will have read the letter, amended it a bit, added a line or two of my own – or sometimes cut a line or two – and sent it off the amended version to the constituent.

In other words, they will have stuck their necks out to defend the Government.  So imagine how many of them felt when the Chancellor backtracks.

And if you can’t, I’ll tell you.  They felt that all that sticking their necks out achieved was to have their heads cut off.  No-one likes being made a fool of (or, rather, feeling that they’ve been made a fool of).

After all, what do these MPs say when the inevitable e-mail arrives from constituents asking them whether they are still, given the Chancellor’s change of heart, as deeply and personally committed to his original pasty plans as when they last wrote?

Some will muse aloud to colleagues about whether or not they would have been better off voting against these changes in the first place.  Such a course would certainly look more strong and effective to angry constituents.

It is the PRU Letter Factor that best explained backbench unease over the U-turn on the Environment Department’s original plans for the forests.  Many MPs simply sent a reply based on the relevant PRU letter to constituents, and felt embarrassed and marooned when the Government backed down.

Compared to the desire for a better Britain, or for a revived economy, wounded pride and hurt feelings are ignoble motives.  (Indeed, they’re not among the most noble of motives at the best of times.)

But, as the poet put it, “What mighty contests rise from trivial things.”  Nothing will have undermined George Osborne’s standing among Tory backbenchers more this week than the feeling among them that they “went over the top” for him on pasties and caravans and charities and skips – only to find, glancing back, that he was vigorously waving the white flag at the enemy as they ducked and dived under fire.

By Paul Goodman



Paul Goodman: Jeremy Hunt’s future
“He is an able, bright, sharp, personable Minister of real ability.  There are fewer of these around than there might be.  He would be a loss to the Government, and I hope he stays and prospers.  The explanation of his Murdoch troubles seems to me to be simple at heart.  He wanted to have his cake and eat it.  He wanted both to conduct the bid properly (which he did) and remain on good terms with Empire Murdoch – believing throughout that BSkyB’s venture was justified.  The tension between those aims conjured up his woes.” Read more:

John Howell MP: Labour always fails when it comes to economic responsibility, as the IMF’s 1976 report shows.    “The IMF was substantially underwhelmed with Labour’s economic performance. Its blunt assessment of the causes of the crisis in which the then Labour government found itself was summed up in this phrase: “First among these [causes] has been the failure to establish effective control over financial policies”. This is now a phrase which echoes down the years of successive Labour governments. Contrast that with the latest IMF report which paid tribute to the “substantial progress” towards a sustainable budget delivered by the Coalition’s austerity programme. It went on to describe the deficit reduction as “essential” in the medium term.” Read more:

Jill Kirby: It’s time to scrap the child poverty target, and replace it with broader measures.  “As the Conservatives struggle to establish a defining purpose for this administration beyond deficit reduction, a clear break with Labour’s failed social policies would surely help them to demonstrate a reason for governing. As a new survey earlier this week showed, a long-lasting marriage is ranked as life’s most important achievement not only amongst the elderly but also among 18-24 year olds; it is a popular aspiration the government would do well to endorse. A child poverty strategy which encouraged parents to commit to each other and to stay together would be a good place to start.” Read more:

Dr Eamonn Butler: It’s Tax Freedom Day today. Yes, for almost five months you’ve been working just to pay taxes.   “We are actually worse off than mediaeval serfs. In the Middle Ages, serfs had to work just four months of the year for their feudal landlord, whereas we have to work five.

But it gets worse. We are actually paying more of your income in tax than you were last year. Indeed, we have had to work an extra two days this year, in order to meet our tax bills. That is because our income has been squeezed by inflation and recession, while George Osborne has been raising VAT, pasty taxes and various unseen ‘stealth’ taxes in a feeble attempt to balance his books.” Read more:

Matthew Barrett: The Fresh Start Project – the Tory MPs trying to forge a new UK-EU relationship      “The Fresh Start Project is in the process of comprehensively researching the different options for renegotiating and reforming – i.e. taking back – the areas of competency Britain currently cedes to the EU. Many Eurosceptics call for things like becoming members of the EEA alone, or have a Swiss or Norwegian-style relationship with the EU. However, having the Norwegian relationship, for example, would mean Britain would have to accept all sorts of European directives without having any say on them. Clearly that would be unsatisfactory for Britain, and so Fresh Start’s approach is to seek to find the right relationship for Britain.” Read more:

Mark Reckless MP: Police and Crime Commissioners are one of the great reforms of this Conservative-led government.   “Until 2007, when Craig Mackinlay won a previously strongly Labour ward covering the centre of Chatham (and actually in my constituency) on a ticket to do something about it, street prostitution was endemic in Chatham, having been put in the ‘too difficult’ box by the police for at least 150 years. Now it has been largely eradicated by police working with the council, and not just arresting prostitutes, pimps and kerb-crawlers, but getting the girls off drugs and into accommodation, and often then into work or college. PCCs will be able to give that sort of lead elsewhere.” Read more:

Tim Montgomerie: If a Tory majority is unlikely should Cameron double down on his alliance with the Liberal Democrats?  “Stephan Shakespeare is undoubtedly right that there are big risks in going for majority and potentially, therefore, going for broke. The “EU veto moments”, recommended by Chris Grayling, might help to maximise the Tory vote but they are also likely to upset the Liberal Democrats. The Tories cannot easily win an election outright if they don’t pour resources into LibCon marginals but if they adopt a “no mercy” strategy against Lib Dem MPs and those MPs survive they might be less favourable to a Conservative alliance afterwards…But the risks don’t all run one way. There are at least two big risks with a strategy that seeks to appease the Lib Dems, however, in the hope that a blue/yellow coalition would continue.” Read more:

By Paul Goodman

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