Steve Richards: Michael Gove v Jamie Oliver? It's no contest

Without nationally imposed rules, food standards will become erratic at best

Share

David Cameron's old friend and adviser Steve Hilton might have left No 10 in a mood of embattled frustration, but in the Department for Education at least, his ideas are alive and kicking. They live and kick with such vibrancy that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, finds himself in a battle with Jamie Oliver. The conflict might seem tiny, but the outcome will define the Government almost as much as its economic policies.

Oliver has expressed alarm that Academy schools are no longer compelled to follow national food standards. As he put it recently: "We don't want bullshit about the Big Society. We want a strategy to stop Britain being the fifth most unhealthy country in the world... Tell me, Mr Gove, Mr Lansley [the Health Secretary], how you plan to change that. Two out of five kids are obese. What is in your arsenal? The fact is, they are doing nothing."

But doing nothing is Gove's driving political philosophy (and Lansley's too). By this I do not mean that the Education Secretary spends too much time playing games on his iPad, an accusation unfairly applied to David Cameron. He is extremely busy doing nothing, believing as a matter of principle that the state should keep out of the way in most matters. In this particular case, Gove insists heads and staff at academies should decide what food is served in their canteens and machines. One of Gove's allies responded to Oliver's outburst by insisting, "We trust teachers – the professionals on the front line – to do what is best for their pupils."

In a somewhat defensive press release, the Department for Education insisted that academies are doing "no worse" than other schools, and a little desperately cited the menus at a few of the better-performing academies. At one we are told: "The food is hearty, well cooked and perfectly seasoned. The chicken pie was packed with meat and topped with a delicious pastry crust, while the root vegetable option was also full of flavour."

As a vegetarian, that last item sounds so good I am tempted to become a pupil at the school, but quoting a few scattered examples from around the country only reinforces Oliver's urgent demand for uniform high standards, nationally enforced. Why can't they all have a root vegetable option?

Before the last election, Steve Hilton organised a series of seminars with members of the shadow cabinet and others on his plans for a smaller, decentralised state. Each shadow cabinet member insisted that they would be ready to appear on the Today programme at 10 past eight to declare that a crisis in a local service was not the responsibility of central government. Since then, this romantic version of a small state has faced the realities of power. Ministers rush to microphones to explain what they are going to do about various crises. Cameron has given a personal guarantee that the Government will deliver on the NHS, and Andrew Lansley had to accept that he is ultimately responsible for health provision, a commitment that was not part of his original reforms. Whenever anything goes wrong, panic-stricken ministers take to the airwaves. Quite often they are right to do so.

Gove holds out, allowing his free schools and academies to get on with what they want to get on with. He is the charming crusader and as such has become the ministerial pin-up of Tory columnists and others, their great success story of the Coalition. But his battle with Oliver highlights a limit to that populist tune, "Keep the nanny state off our backs!"

Up pops Oliver to point out with passion that without nationally imposed standards, junk food companies make hay and pupils become obese. He is an alternative populist, showing that nannying can be benevolent, an almost impossible argument to make in the UK. The Cameron wing of the Conservative party has always had a problem with Oliver because the superstar chef challenges their instinctive wariness of the state. At the Conservative conference in 2006, when Cameron was in his so-called sunny phase, the newish Tory leader cited Oliver as a great model, arguing that it was not the state that had improved school dinners but the TV chef. Instead of being flattered, Oliver pointed out that it was the state that had imposed healthy rules on school dinners. Before the rules, the dinners were as healthy as a fried Mars bar. The state working in partnership with the likes of Oliver made the difference, one dependent on the other.

Gove faces a dilemma, He is a decentraliser and yet academies are an act of centralisation. They are accountable to him rather than local government. His position reminds me of Nicholas Ridley, an Environment Secretary in the 1980s, who announced that tenants could seize control of estates, but that the new management of the estates were accountable to him. Ridley ended up almost painting one estate in Wolverhampton himself. In this case, Gove has got the balance wrong. Without nationally imposed rules, food standards will become erratic at best.

The Education Secretary calls himself a Blairite. Tony Blair would know that in a row with Jamie Oliver there is only going to be one winner. He would have have conceded the case and invited Oliver to dinner, or at least invited him to cook dinner. Gove should do the same. Obsesity is a national scandal that requires a national solution.

s.richards@independent.co.uk / twitter.com/steverichards14

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high