Coalition proposals for scrapping free school milk descended into confusion today after Downing Street insisted the cut would not go ahead.
Number 10 stamped on the suggestion despite health minister Ann Milton saying the scheme for under-fives was too expensive and there was no evidence it benefited children.
Aides to Prime Minister David Cameron made clear that he "did not like the idea" of cancelling free milk, and that it would "not be happening".
However, the intervention left universities minister David Willetts floundering in a television interview, as he inititally said that ending the provision was on the table - only to be informed on air that it had been ruled out.
The controversial proposal had echoes of Margaret Thatcher's removal of free school milk for over-sevens in 1971, when she was education secretary.
That decision earned her the nickname "Milksnatcher" among critics.
It also raised the prospect of more friction within the coalition - as senior Liberal Democrats have previously praised the provision of free milk.
The Nursery Milk scheme allows children under five in approved day care to receive 189ml (1/3 pint) of milk each day free of charge.
Babies under 12 months can also receive dried baby milk made up to 189ml.
It dates back to 1940, when milk was issued to pregnant women and young children to protect them against wartime food shortages.
But in a leaked letter to the Scottish Government, Ms Milton said the cost had almost doubled in the last five years to some £50 million.
The Tory minister said that the Government expected opposition to the measure from the media, parents, nurseries, childminders and the dairy sector, adding: "Abolition of the scheme is likely to be highly controversial, particularly as this will affect some children in low-income families."
But Ms Milton said: "This should not prevent us from ending an ineffective universal measure - and this would clearly be the best time to do it, given the state of public finances and the need to make savings."
The Department of Health confirmed that scrapping the scheme was being considered from April next year as part of the Government's Spending Review being carried out.
"One of the options we are considering is to remove the scheme and increase the value of the Healthy Start voucher but no final decision has been taken," a spokesman said.
Healthy Start vouchers are given to pregnant women and children under four and can be used to buy milk or fresh fruit and vegetables.Reuse content