Senior Tories were accused of running a campaign to “maliciously leak” Whitehall documents to damage their coalition partners in the run-up to this month’s local elections.
Government emails surfaced today suggesting Nick Clegg was ready to make schools spend less on teaching to “subsidise” his plan to give free school meals to all pupils aged four to seven.
The emails turned out to be misleading – but the story led the BBC lunchtime radio news, to the fury of the Liberal Democrats.
The latest row comes less than 10 days after the Tories were accused of releasing secret cabinet correspondence that showed Mr Clegg was blocking Tory plans to toughen punishments for knife crime. The Daily Mail published an internal letter to Mr Clegg from Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, saying that mandatory six-month jail terms for adults convicted of a second knife offence would be too expensive.
Both leaks have infuriated the Liberal Democrat leadership, who see them as part of a Tory ploy to undermine the party by releasing confidential Whitehall documents.
“This is no way to run a Government,” said a senior Liberal Democrat source. “It is an act of bad faith, makes it more difficult to make sensible policy and undermines confidence.”
In the latest spat, emails were leaked to the BBC’s World at One programme suggesting that civil servants had warned Mr Clegg that his free school meal plan risked diverting money from teaching and school repairs.
One email stated: “I am concerned that there is a risk that the Deputy Prime Minister and others are about to make public statements that suggest that the additional £80m for free school meals can be found from within the Department’s budget without an impact on other education capital budgets – firstly, because this is not true.”
Another leaked letter, from Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, to Mr Alexander, stated: “I am sure that you will agree with me that we must not risk forcing schools to subsidise meals by reducing their spending on teaching and learning.”
The World at One then quoted Dominic Cummings, Mr Gove’s former special adviser: “Clegg has been lying about the announcement from the start to cover up the abuse of taxpayers’ money for his personal ends.”
But the Department for Education made clear that no money would be diverted from either the capital budget or schools spending to pay for the policy. It would be paid for partly out of additional money from the Treasury and partly out of a one-off underspend in the DfE’s budget the previous year.
Sir Malcolm Bruce, the Liberal Democrats’ Deputy Leader, called on Mr Gove to “put a bit of a constraint on some of the ideologues who are trying to undermine [the meals policy] and acknowledge that he has signed [it off] and fully supports it. He should call his dogs off.”