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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.