I suppose you could call it an O-turn. First, the Prime Minister declared, in a speech aboard HMS Ark Royal last year, that a new military covenant would be enshrined “into the law of our land.” Then, there seemed to be a U-turn, with the government committing only to review the covenant annually, not to lend it legal force. Yet, now, a U-turn on the U-turn, with the news that it will be etched into the staute books after all. The defence minister Andrew Robathan tells today’s Telegraph that, “we are putting the military covenant on a statutory basis for the first time.” The formal announcement is expected in the House on Monday, pending the outcome of some “final discussions”.
How the government could so messily resolve to satisfy the pledge that it made in the first place, I don’t know — although it doesn’t reflect kindly on the Downing Street operation. After Cameron had made such a clear original commitment, it was obvious that any sort of evasion would be met with anger. And so it proved, with newspapers and Royal British Legion director-generals alike urging the PM to sign the covenant into law. Their triumph is one that the government cannot now share in; it wounded itself along the way.
My guess is that Cameron developed fears about servicemen suing the state over infractions of a loosely-worded, freely-interpretable and largely symbolic charter. But, if so, he might have thought of that last year. Instead, this: a U-turn on top of a U-turn, that comes after a series of previous U-turns. Coalition government was always going to entail compromise, concession and change, but the Prime Minister must guard against gaining a reputation for vacillation.