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Revealed: how Nick Clegg cooked up his ‘free school meals’ pledge

11 March 2014

5:44 PM

11 March 2014

5:44 PM

For those who missed Dominic Cummings, recently departed Michael Gove adviser, on BBC Radio 4’s World At One, here’s the extraordinary transcript which confirms what Coffee Housers will have feared. He didn’t give an interview, but responded to the BBC’s questions (below) about Nick Clegg’s plan to give free school meals to all school pupils – even the offspring of millionaires.

And to me, this sums up why coalitions are a bad idea. The junior partner gets desperate for a jazzy-sounding idea to call their own, so ambush their senior partner. An announcement is made, for reasons of spin and nothing else. No policy work is done. The expectations of millions of parents are raised, schools without kitchens are plunged into chaos, and unaffordable promises made. This is politics at its very worst. (PS David Laws gives his version of events here)

Q: How did the policy come about in the first place?

A: Clegg’s team tried to persuade us to do it in 2013. We refused. So Clegg said to Cameron in secret before party conferences, ‘you give me this and I’ll give you your marriage tax announcement for Tory conference, Gove refuses to do it so you’ll have to force him.’ The DfE wasn’t told until about an hour or so before the announcement. No policy work was done in advance.

Q: Did the Department for Education support the policy and did it believe it would work?

A: Officials in DfE were unanimous that it was a bad gimmick and introduced in a way that makes it hard to avoid implementation chaos. Officials were obviously right.

Q: What warnings did the Department for Education give about the idea?

A: We told Clegg a) it was a bad idea in principle as there were much bigger priorities for spending a billion quid; b) if he and DC were determined on it, do not rush it in, it would impose big demands on schools (e.g. new kitchens) at a time when they have a lot of really important changes to adapt to, that we wouldn’t be able to do it sensibly in time, and c) that all the figures bandied about were junk and he should not say them publicly.

Q: What form did the warnings take? (emails? Meetings? Letters?)

All three.

Q: Where did the £150m budget for capital spending on kitchens and dining rooms come from?

A: It was a back of the fag packet number by Clegg’s spin doctors. We told them it was rubbish. It is based on a supposed DfE underspend that did not exist and they were told it did not exist. Because Clegg only thinks about politics – and starts every meeting saying ‘I haven’t been able to read the policy papers but let’s talk about the politics’ – he assumed that our opposition was because it was a Clegg idea but it wasn’t. Our opposition was because it is a dumb idea badly executed that shows why politicians should have less power over schools, and although I had many disagreements with Whitehall officials and the methods of the civil service, this is very firmly the fault of Clegg and not civil servants in general and the DfE in particular.

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