They say a week is a long time in politics. But sometimes it can only take a few hours to see events unfold in an unpredictable manner.
This morning I wrote about government plans to abolish the UK wide Nursery Milk scheme which gives free milk to 1.5 million children aged under five years old.
Within an hour David Cameron’s office had issued a statement saying that the Prime Minister had been unaware of the proposal and had now decided that it would definitely not go ahead.
Shortly after that the Department of Health stated that ending the scheme was an option that had been “considered” but it had “decided to rule it out”. This is strange as views had been sought in writing from the Scottish Government and the Welsh Assembly with a deadline of 18 August.
So it seems that Cameron realised exactly how unpopular the policy would be, particularly in its echoes of Thatcher The Milk Snatcher, and moved immediately to reverse the policy before any more damage could be done.
In fact, Cameron moved so quickly that David Willetts, the higher education minister, was totally caught out. There he was, busy defending the idea of removing free milk, live on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show when the Prime Minister announced the U-turn. The first Willetts knew of the change was when the presenter told him about it. He, of course, agreed that the Prime Minister had done the right thing.
The proposal to scrap free milk was initiated by a junior minister at the Department of Health, Conservative MP Anne Milton. She had acknowledged that the move would be controversial, but argued that the Nursery Milk scheme did not provide value for money and therefore had to go.
Now this was not a vague idea, or an internal departmental discussion of some potential options. It was a firm proposal. Milton made that clear, and in writing too. So Cameron’s intervention marks a reversal in policy rather than a clarification.
What is the fall out from today’s events likely to be?
Firstly the credibility of Anne Milton as a minister must be in severe doubt. To have put a proposal such as this one in writing and then to see it slapped down by the Prime Minister can only be called a humiliation. While Cameron has expressed his support for Milton, her position must be severely weakened.
The Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, will also have questions to answer. As political head of the department he is now in a very difficult position. Either he knew of the proposal and therefore stands accused of a political misjudgement in letting it be made public. Or he knew nothing of it, meaning that his management of his junior minister can be questioned.
And David Cameron will know that the confusion this row has caused cannot be good for a government that will be making unpopular cuts over the next few months. It is well known that there are MPs within both coalition partners who are unhappy with the way matters are progressing and this policy muddle will provide them with additional ammunition.
Policy making on the hoof is not something that any government is keen to be accused of. But when a decision like this is taken in such haste it is difficult to avoid the charge.
Still, at least nursery school children will have their milk to look forward to.