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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Leave campaigners are doing down Britain's influence in Europe

As the third biggest country, Britain has huge clout in the EU.

Last week the Leave campaign's Priti Patel took to the airwaves to bang on about the perils of EU regulation, claiming it is doing untold damage to small businesses in the UK. Let's put aside for one minute the fact that eight in ten small firms actually want to stay in the EU because of the huge benefits it brings in terms of trade and investment. Or the fact that the EU has cut red tape by around a quarter in recent years and is committed to doing more. Because the really startling thing Patel said was that these rules come to us "without the British government having a say." That might be forgivable coming from an obscure backbencher or UKIP activist. But as a government minister, Priti Patel knows full well that the UK has a major influence over all EU legislation. Indeed, she sits round the table when EU laws are being agreed.

Don't take it from me, take it from Patel herself. Last August, in an official letter to the House of Lords on upcoming EU employment legislation, the minister boasted she had "worked closely with MEPs to influence the proposal and successfully protected and advanced our interests." And just a few months ago in February she told MPs that the government is engaging in EU negotiations "to ensure that the proposals reflect UK priorities." So either she's been duping the Parliament by exaggerating how much influence she has in Brussels. Or, as is perhaps more likely, she's trying to pull the wool over the British people's eyes and perpetuate a favourite myth of the eurosceptics: that the UK has no say over EU rules.

As the third biggest country, Britain has huge clout in Europe. We have the most votes in the EU Council alongside France, Germany and Italy, where we are on the winning side 87 per cent of the time. The UK also has a tenth of all MEPs and the chairs of three influential European Parliament committees (although admittedly UKIP and Tory sceptics do their best to turn their belief the UK has no influence in Europe into a self-fulfilling prophecy). UKIP MEPs aside, the Brits are widely respected by European counterparts for their common sense and expertise in areas like diplomacy, finance and defence. And to the horror of the French, it is English that has become the accepted lingua franca in the corridors of power in Brussels.

So it's no surprise that the UK has been the driving force behind some of the biggest developments in Europe in recent decades, including the creation of the single market and the enlargement of the EU to Eastern Europe. The UK has also led the way on scrapping mobile roaming charges from next year, and is now setting the agenda on EU proposals that will make it easier to trade online and to access online streaming services like BBC iPlayer or Netflix when travelling abroad. The irony is that the Europe of today which Eurosceptics love to hate is very much a British creation.

The Leave campaign like to deride anyone who warns of the risks of leaving the EU as "talking down Britain." But by denying the obvious, that the UK has a major role in shaping EU decisions, they are the ones guilty of doing our country down. It's time we stood up to their defeatist narrative and made the case for Britain's role in Europe. I am a proud patriot who wants the best for my country, and that is why like many I will be passionately making the case to remain in the EU. Now is not the time to leave, it's time to lead.