Leading article: Dangerous echoes of Thatcherism

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It might be called the curious incident of the milk in the summertime. A Scottish newspaper, the Glasgow Sunday Herald, revealed – on the basis of a leaked letter from the Health minister – that the Government was planning to end free milk for children in nurseries, the argument being that in these straitened times the provision was poor value for money and outdated. But no sooner had David Willetts, the Universities Minister, justified keeping all options open, than officials in Downing Street denied it. The Prime Minister, they made known, did not like the idea of five-year-olds having their free milk scrapped.

As well he might not. "Margaret Thatcher – Milk Snatcher" is well established in the national memory as one of the more damaging slogans of those years. Her decision, as Education Secretary, to end free milk for most primary school children came to encapsulate a spirit of meanness and suspicion of state largesse. It stood right up there with the half-quotation, "There is no such thing as society", as representing the particular brand of Thatcherism David Cameron has spent the past five years trying, with mixed success, to live down.

Short-lived though it was, this episode is telling in many ways. First and foremost, of course, it illustrates the sensitivity of No 10, and clearly of Mr Cameron personally, to the slightest hint of any equivalence between his own Government and that of Margaret Thatcher. These may be austere times, and government spending may need to be slashed, but the Prime Minister has tried to communicate that he is not demanding cuts for their own, ideological, sake. He saw at once that depriving under-fives of free milk would be cited time and again as proof that his Government was essentially Thatcherite by another name.

And so it proved. The Labour leadership candidate, David Miliband, lost no time in drawing the parallels. There were, said Mr Miliband, "dark echoes of Thatcher snatching milk from a previous generation" and it was a "cruel cut which will hurt children the most". It would cause "real anger amongst parents, nurseries and milk providers". There were suggestions, too, that the Conservatives' Liberal Democrat partners would be unhappy.

Yet this is not all the episode reveals. The proposal to abolish free nursery milk was contained in a letter from the (Conservative) Health minister, Anne Milton, to her Scottish and other counterparts. But the first Mr Cameron says he knew about it was when it made the news. It is possible that the leak was a deliberate piece of kite-flying and he was being disingenuous in saying he knew nothing of it. But it is also possible that Ms Milton and her civil servants were simply naïve in failing to appreciate the resonance of tampering with children's free milk. Politically, such a proposal is lethal and any British politician, of any party, should know that. At very least, the minister needed to tell the Prime Minister that it was being broached. To this extent the new Government has been exposed, not for the first time, as inexperienced, if not actually dysfunctional.

But if abolishing free nursery milk is politically unacceptable, this does not mean that it would not make economic sense. The idea, as presented yesterday, was that part of the money saved – £60m and rising – could be used to boost the value of the milk and fresh food tokens already provided for the less well-off. A universal benefit would thus be replaced by a targeted one. In itself, as was clear from some of the internet and phone-in response yesterday, this is an argument that can be made, and it is not without some public appeal.

What happened yesterday was a cackhanded minister – rightly – being overruled by a politically savvy Prime Minister. But it will also be interpreted in some quarters as timidity. The Government would do well to ensure that the curious incident of the nursery milk is not repeated.

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