The lady IS for turning (like all politicians)

Decisions: “Nothing in politics is as risky as a U-turn and as difficult as a successful one.”

The screeching brakes of a political U-turn drowned out all other news as Theresa May radically altered her plans for social care. But why isn’t changing your mind a wise and healthy thing?

A week ago the Conservative Party seemed to be coasting towards an easy victory at the general election. But with two and a half weeks to go, there has been a wobble. Since the release of the party manifestos last week, Labour has surged in the polls.

And yesterday, Theresa May was forced into that most embarrassing political crime: a dreaded U-turn.

In their manifesto, the Conservatives ruled out a cap on the money people will have to pay for social care, instead saying no-one would see their assets fall below £100,000. But in a speech in Wales yesterday, May said that changes would now include an “absolute limit”.

This came after Labour attacked the original plan as a “dementia tax”, given that those who need long-term care would be likely to run up mammoth bills. Jeremy Corbyn accused the Conservatives of “forcing those who need social care to pay for it with their homes”. “Strong and stable, more like weak and wobbly”, came the catcalls from May’s political opponents.

May denied that the policy was a U-turn, but journalists were in no doubt at all. The BBC’s health correspondent Nick Triggles wrote: “There has clearly been a rethink,” while an Evening Standard editorial called the decision “hasty” and “astonishing”.

As only Britain’s second female PM, and as a Tory, Theresa May is inevitably compared to Margaret Thatcher, who was famed for her ultra-decisive, ideology-driven nature. “You turn if you want to”, she said in her speech at the 1980 party conference. “The lady’s not for turning”. The phrase became a Thatcherite motto.

The U-turn, according to Gidi Grinstein, demonstrates how “every leader lives between statesmanship and politics”, and that people with authority have the mandate to lead, yet “they are often measured by their ability to stand their ground despite opposition and change.”

The statesman wants to look bold and strong; the politician is a pragmatist who is open to a change of heart. Which position should a leader lean towards?

Caught in two minds

Much better to be a statesman, say some. Changing your policy after a short media storm is a simple demonstration of weakness, which is one of the worst traits a leader can have. The leaders we most admire throughout history are those who had the determination to drive through policies that fit their vision for society.

On the contrary, reply others. If you announce a policy that is immediately rubbished, then abandoning it is a sign that you are open to listening. Many of the most successful leaders in history, from Bismarck to De Gaulle, were highly flexible in their approach to leadership. After all, what is the point of having a mind if it is not open to being changed?

You Decide

  1. Do you want the head of your country to be a “statesman” or a “politician”?
  2. Are U-turns a sign of dishonesty?


  1. Write down the two policies you most associate with the Conservative Party and the Labour Party.
  2. Describe two occasions on which you changed your mind about an important subject, explaining why you did so.

Some People Say...

“There is no greater courage than changing your mind.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That Mrs May says the Tories will limit the amount of money people will have to pay towards social care, after ruling out a “cap” on it in their manifesto. We also know that the polls show that Labour has significantly cut the Tories’ lead in the polls in the last week, and many experts believe the Tories’ social care policy has pushed a number of wavering voters into the Labour camp.
What do we not know?
Whether U-turns are just one of those obscure political stories that only journalists and the politically obsessed find interesting, or whether anger at these decisions filters through to the wider population and affects the result of elections. We do not know whether the original policy itself or the subsequent U-turn is more damaging to the Tories.

Word Watch

Labour has surged in the polls
A recent Survation poll put the Tory lead down to nine points, after it had previously been in the high teens. However, a nine point lead come June 8th would still give the party a healthy majority.
Wales is one of the parts of the UK the Tories have been targeting, although a YouGov poll showed a large swing towards Labour there in recent days.
The lady’s not for turning
The phrase referred to her opponents urging a U-turn on her liberalisation of the economy, mainly because unemployment had risen to 2m by the autumn of 1980 and the country was still in recession.
Gidi Grinstein
Writing for The Reut Institute which he founded. His argument starts with a change of policy by Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon in 2001–5 over the Gaza strip. See Become An Expert.
Regarded as one of the most brilliant strategists in modern history, he unified Germany. He was a firm believer in flexibility.
De Gaulle
Charles de Gaulle was elected in 1958 on a mandate to keep Algeria French, but he ended up severing the ties between the two nations by 1962.

PDF Download

Please click on "Print view" at the top of the page to see a print friendly version of the article.