Last week Education Secretary Nicky Morgan pulled an about-face on the government’s academies programme so abrupt, you could almost hear the screeching tyres as she slammed on the brakes to pull a U-turn.
The climbdown on the compulsory academisation of schools was a humiliation for the government – one compounded by the decision to announce the change in tack mid-afternoon on the day the local election results were announced. The whole thing screamed political expediency but smelled of rotting fish. It was a brutally unsubtle attempt to bury bad news that was unceremoniously undone by the national media within minutes.
The entire episode is a textbook example of how not to make an announcement or change position – surprising for a political party that only 12 months ago won an electoral majority due in large part to the quality of its electoral strategy and strict adherence to sticking to its messaging.
What makes the academy climbdown all the more remarkable is that it’s the latest in a series of ill-conceived communications and policy announcements, alongside a number of prominent gaffes such as the Prime Minister’s comments about Afghanistan and Nigeria.
George Osborne had to row back on his plans for benefit cuts. And Jeremy Hunt has managed to generate such animosity amongst junior doctors it’s impossible any outcomes beyond the enforcement of contract – thereby earning criticism – or a fundamental climb down on the part of the Health Secretary.
The sum total is that the government in recent months has been mired with communications and policy mishaps that have undermined its agenda – but as importantly have prevented the promotion of government activity at a time of strife within the Conservative Party over the EU referendum. The referendum was always going to dominate the headlines, and the ructions within the party of government were inevitable. But the Conservatives at present are doing nothing to offset that damage.
At present, Labour’s been unable to capitalise. But even then, the government is letting Labour off the hook when the Opposition is going through its own internal difficulties. The academisation of schools will still happen as a consequence of demands on local government finances and the opportunities for government intervention in the case of failing schools. But, in order to create a more positive set of headlines than the European debate, to challenge Labour, and to maximise the chances for an election in 2020, government communications need to refocus and return to the type of discipline seen amongst the Tories in the General Election.