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

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

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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

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