Alex Hilton: Milk U-turn may yet bite Tories

'Milk snatcher' is such a memorable label that I'm amazed no political radar was alerted earlier in the recent milk farce.

Alex Hilton
Alex Hilton

Were other motives at play? Did junior minister Anne Milton float the idea to damage Health Secretary Andrew Lansley? Did Lansley do so to destabilise Number 10, or even to undermine his own junior minister?

My guess is that cutting a £50m government purchase of milk would lead directly to an increase of £50m in DEFRA subsidies to milk producers, so Number 10 calculated they might as well get the milk if they're going to pay for it anyway.

We have been told this is the age of austerity; that ministers are cutting for their country. Yet two recent decisions have belied this message. The minister was clearly given advice that there is no evidence of any health benefit from providing free milk in schools. And secondly, the Government is minded to provide homeopathic remedies from NHS funds, again despite advice that there is no evidence of any health benefit.

Both school milk and homeopathy should have been referred to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), which routinely and empirically assesses the efficacy and value for money of drugs and clinical procedures. I would hazard that there are significantly fewer children at risk of malnutrition than in the 1970s and that NICE would veto both spending items, yet the axe would have been wielded by an independent quango rather than by a politician.

In comms terms, the Conservatives have been successfully selling to the public a simple and consistent line for a long time now - 'debt is bad, cuts are necessary'. The middle classes believe it and those who will be worst hit don't see an alternative way out.

But when the storm does hit, when public sector jobs cuts accelerate and those newly unemployed people find benefits and housing support aren't there, then there will be a couple of million people eyeing up £50m spent on milk and a few million more on homeopathy and wondering whether their own change in circumstances really was necessary after all.

- Alex Hilton is a political communications adviser and former Labour parliamentary candidate.

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