Unless you read the Daily Telegraph, you’d be forgiven for missing it. The big news this week was that the government managed to achieve a good headline. The praise from the Telegraph, which has been running a very effective campaign to urge the government to water-down its proposed free-market reforms to the planning system, is not something the Coalition has been used to recently. The past fortnight has been among the worst the government has had since coming to power. It’s so-called friends in the press – furious about the Cam Dine With Me cash-for-access scandal, a Budget raid on pensioners, spiraling fuel costs and, laughably perhaps, new taxes on Cornish pasties – seem to have, at least temporarily, abandoned it. Its poll ratings have slumped. Conservative commentators are growing restless.
Presentation seems to be the government’s big problem: it is hard to recall a worse reaction to a Budget in modern times. This is paradoxical given this was a fiscally neutral finance bill – there was no net increase in the cost of being a British citizen through higher taxes or lower public spending. Apart from some counterintuitive raids on the elderly and upper-middle-income parents, one could make a reasonable argument that the Budget was fairly benign.
The experience of the planning reforms shows that the government can listen and learn. Early responses show the government has even achieved the remarkable PR coup of pleasing both the free-marketeers of the CBI and construction lobby, which favour unbridled license to build, and the green-belt guardians from the National Trust and Campaign to Protect Rural England, which favour heavy regulation.
While planning policy is of monumental importance to people’s lives – it shapes the places we live in – it is never going to be as headline-friendly as granny taxes, fuel duty rises and, it seems, Cornish pasties.
Maybe it is the limelight that causes the government to make a hash of its PR. Away from the media spotlight it seems perfectly capable of managing it. The trouble is that – away from that spotlight – it doesn’t count for much. If the government wants to recover the substantial ground it has lost, it needs to find a way of doing better on the big stage.