Nick Clegg has had a good party conference, and wants to round it off with an announcement that will leave a warm glow in delegates’ tummies. So he’s announcing free school meals for all children in infant school from next September.

This will be a key feature in the Deputy Prime Minister’s speech tomorrow afternoon, and also represents the key trade between the two coalition parties over tax breaks for married couples. The latter is likely to appear in a conference speech or two when the Tories meet in Manchester the week after next, and the Lib Dems have a provision in the Coalition Agreement that they will abstain on this policy. Clegg will attack the policy directly in his speech, saying:

‘The Conservatives, on the other hand, have made it clear that their priority is to help some families over others, with tax break for married couples. A tax break for some, funded through the taxes of others. That tells you everything you need to know about their values.’

The marriage tax break will cost around £550 million a year, while this new free school meals policy will cost £600 million and will apply to reception, and years 1 and 2. The Lib Dems point to pilots showing that in pilots where all children had been given a free school dinner, attainment rose, as well as children being more likely to eat vegetables at lunchtime. Between 3 per cent and 5 per cent more children reached target levels in Maths and English at Key Stage 1, a bigger improvement than the 3.6 per cent rise caused by the compulsory literacy hour.

But sources close to Clegg also say that ‘this is about helping families who are squeezed with the cost of living’: the policy will save parents around £400 a year. The Lib Dem leader will say:

‘We, however, will help all families in these tough times, not just the kind we like best, by helping their young children get the best possible start in life – and that tells you everything about ours.’

As well as being an attempt to improve children’s nutritional intake, this is also clearly a policy aimed at taking down Labour on their big cost of living drive. David Laws managed another victory on that front earlier this week when he announced new guidance controlling the cost of school uniforms, which was another issue Labour MPs were just beginning to burrow into.

Tags: Lib Dem conference 2013, Liberal Democrats, UK politics