Got milk? The coalition’s latest U-turn

It’s free. No, it’s not free. Yes, it is free.

In my cover story on David Cameron's first 100 days in office for this week's New Statesman, I compared the Prime Minister to Margaret Thatcher, writing:

Despite appearances to the contrary, Cameron is less a Whiggish pragmatist than a radical, in the Margaret Thatcher mould. His combination of market-oriented reforms to the public sector and savage cuts to public spending -- hailed by the investment bank Seymour Pierce as heralding a "golden age of outsourcing" -- suggests that he is intent on completing the neoliberal, state-shrinking revolution that Thatcher began and which Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did little to reverse.

. . . Disregard the rhetoric and image, and consider instead the record: in his first 100 days, Cameron has gone further than Thatcher -- and much faster, too. His "modernising" ally and minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, has said that the Tories always planned to outstrip the Iron Lady.

It seems, however, that Dave has decided not to out-Thatcher Thatcher on the subject of free milk for kiddies. In the 1970s, the then education secretary was berated as "Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher" after her decision to end free school milk for the over-sevens. But earlier this morning, Downing Street beat a hasty retreat from the suggestion in a letter from a junior health minister that a UK-wide scheme offering free milk for under-fives could be scrapped as part of the coalition's ongoing and draconian drive to make immediate spending cuts.

The Department of Health has now confirmed that no decision has yet been taken. (Put to one side, for a moment, the fact that cutting the scheme would have saved the Treasury only £50m and also put to one side the fact that the coalition has already announced the abolition of free swimming for children and pensioners and the cancellation of Labour plans to extend free school meals to 500,000 children from low-income families.)

It seems to me that there are two related explanations for this humiliating Sunday-morning U-turn by the government. The first is that Cameron may indeed be a Thatcherite ideologue on the economy and the public sector, but his hard-right views often benefit from being sugar-coated with the language of so-called compassionate Conservatism. Or, as I write in my piece:

Tony Blair once denied that New Labour was "Mrs Thatcher with a smile instead of a handbag". It is difficult to conceive of a more apt description of David Cameron.

It's very hard for compassionate Conservatives to spin cuts to free milk as anything other than "cruel", as David Miliband put it. So it's not surprising that the BBC political correspondent Ross Hawkins said: "The Prime Minister does not like the idea of five-year-olds having their free milk scrapped." Really? Shock, horror!

The second factor at play here is a growing sense that the Prime Minister, despite his first-class PPE degree from Oxford, lacks focus and attention to detail, which leads to these U-turns, errors of judgement and gaffes. Remember the row over Crispin Blunt's speech on prison reform, which Downing Street had cleared but then immediately repudiated when the Daily Mail reacted with rage?

The BBC is reporting this morning that the Prime Minister "did not know about the [milk] letter before it was sent out". But that's not good enough. As Tim Montgomerie writes in his piece in the NS this week about Dave's 100 days:

Cameron, it seems, doesn't arrive at his desk in No 10 until 8.30am and has left by 7pm. Away from that desk, he may be working privately, but he certainly finishes earlier than his Downing Street predecessors. An inattention to detail has long worried some of his aides. A failure to master briefs was evident in the election debates and also in his accurate but ill-chosen remarks about Pakistan. It's not enough to get the big judgements right if you get the details wrong. Government really is that unforgiving.

Indeed it is. The next Labour leader, I predict, will thoroughly enjoy taking on this Con-Dem coalition, gaffes and all.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.