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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.