The lady is for turning - again and again

Five of the most controversial Tory U-turns during Theresa May’s one-year reign

Theresa May general election
Britain's Prime Minister, and leader of the Conservative party, Theresa May, delivers a general election campaign speech in Wolverhampton on May 30, 2017
(Image credit: Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images)

Theresa May's concession that women in Northern Ireland will be able to access free NHS abortions in England was the latest in a long line of Tory U-turns under her premiership.

This one was made to avoid a backbench rebellion which could have seen the Prime Minister lose the vital vote on the Queen's Speech. As many as 40 of her party's politicians were prepared to back Labour MP Stella Creasy's amendment calling for women in the province to be able to have the procedure for free.

Describing it as an "embarrassing climbdown", The Independent says: "Just hours earlier, the Department of Health had denied there was even a consultation into making the change, despite pressure to do so."

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May's slender parliamentary majority made the U-turn necessary, although "improved access to abortion for Northern Irish women was perhaps not something most people expected to emerge from the Tory-DUP deal", says the Huffington Post's Paul Waugh.

It isn't the first time the Prime Minister has backtracked. Here are five of the government's most screeching about turns.

No general election

Appearing on The Andrew Marr Show last September, May was adamant that a general election was not in the country's best interests.

"I'm not going to be calling a snap election", she said. "I've been very clear that I think we need that period of time, that stability, to be able to deal with the issues that the country is facing and have that election in 2020."

Seven months later, and having repeatedly stated that a general election is "not going to happen", May announced a snap election for 8 June, attributing this to divisions in Westminster.

Many sighed in exasperation, not least of all Brenda from Bristol, whose dismayed reaction went viral.

Dementia tax U-turn

Despite claiming "nothing has changed", May's introduction of a cap on social care costs, when the Tory manifesto made no mention of one, was hailed as an almighty climbdown in the press.

Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, had even defended the party's decision not to include a cap on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The move was seen as an attempt to detract criticism from the party's so-called 'dementia tax' – its policy to make pensioners pay for their social care costs, bar £100,000, which could be ring-fenced from the state.

Thawing the public sector pay freeze

On Wednesday, a Downing Street spokesman confirmed that the one per cent cap on public sector pay increases was under review. The government "understands that people are weary after years of hard work [and austerity]", he reasoned.

But in what is being dubbed a "double U-turn" in the press, Number 10 later confirmed that "our policy [on public sector pay] has not changed."

The debacle, which caused consternation on Twitter, preempted yesterday's vote in the House of Commons, in which Labour's attempt to amend the Queen's speech to end the cap was rejected.

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Closing the borders to lone child refugees

Shortly before the momentous triggering of Article 50, the government announced that it would only allow 350 unaccompanied child refugees to settle in the UK under a scheme that was intended to help approximately 3,000.

The Dubs scheme – named after Lord Alf Dubs, a holocaust survivor who championed the programme – required the UK government to make arrangements for the relocation of lone child refugees arriving in Europe.

Not only did the U-turn itself provoke a backlash – then Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron denounced it as a "betrayal of British values" – but its strategic timing was interpreted as a sneaky and underhand move. “It's been sandwiched between [Prime Minister's Questions] and all these votes on Brexit – what a way of hiding an announcement", said Lord Dubs.

Manifesto U-turns

There's no such thing as a free lunch, they say, but the cliche rang true when it came to the Tories striking a deal with the DUP in order to secure a working majority in parliament.

The cost of securing the unionists' support for key legislation – beyond an additional £1bn of funding for Northern Ireland – included maintaining the "triple lock guarantee" on state pensions, ensuring an annual rise of at least 2.5 per cent and keeping the winter fuel payment for pensioners.

As well as U-turning on these manifesto pledges, May appears to have dropped her proposal to allow the expansion of grammar schools and a free vote on the reintroduction of fox hunting. Neither featured in the filleted Queen's Speech.

The latest series of U-turns may well signal the end of May's "strong and stable" rhetoric. Perhaps, as Channel 4's Michael Crick suggests, "weak and wobbly" is a more pertinent catchphrase.

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