The Cold War that everyone in Westminster thought would never kick off is well and truly under way. Time was when ministers and advisers imagined that the letters and internal briefing documents detailing the dirty laundry of this government would stay firmly locked in Whitehall desks. But in the past few weeks, the leaks have increased, and they seem to be spreading around the village. Nick Clegg was confronted with the latest on the World at One this afternoon: a document showing that the Cabinet Office has given the Deputy Prime Minister’s favourite free school meals policy a red rating, meaning it is at risk of failing.
Clegg tried to fight back, arguing that it was fully funded and that the proof of the pudding would be in the eating (he seemed curiously keen on food-related idiom today, including the ‘meat and potatoes’ of the Treaty of Rome, the ‘motherhood and apple pie’ in David Cameron’s EU policy, and ‘entrails’ emerging from Whitehall departments). But he also expressed his frustration at the leaks, arguing that it was a serious matter that correspondence like this was making its way into the public domain. He said:
‘It is quite normal in Whitehall for people to constantly review the state of readiness of a policy, but let’s just be really clear, it is now mid-May, this is going to happen in September, it will happen in September, it is fully-funded, we’ve even gone further than that, we’ve legislated for it to make sure it is really there to stay.’
He added that when the scheme begins in September, the ‘onus will be on people who are spending all of their time at the moment seeking to denigrate a policy which is shown to have educational benefits, social benefits as children have lunch together, and to have…’
The problem for the Deputy Prime Minister is that these leaks will keep coming, and it’s not just on free school meals, of course, where the hostility is mounting. At Deputy Prime Minister’s Questions, he was pressed by Mel Stride on his chairmanship of the Home Affairs Committee (more on that here) and by Nick de Bois on his refusal to support reform of sentencing for repeat knife offences.
Rachel Sylvester reports in her column this morning (£) that Clegg suspects that Michael Gove is the source of this leak, when it is a Ministry of Justice policy and has nothing to do with the Education Secretary. This does make Clegg look even more paranoid than Norman Baker, but it also goes some way to explaining why Clegg is bothering to fight so hard on this issue, as he considers it vital to maintain his defences against what he sees as the Gove camp. He told the programme:
‘I don’t know why people are foolish enough, or childish enough, to leak Cabinet correspondence like this, it’s a very serious issue to hand over Cabinet correspondence in the way that occurred.’
But the longer he fights on this issue, the more of Whitehall will fall in on him, with leaks coming not just from the Education department, but the Ministry of Justice and the Cabinet Office. There are various theories about what this means for the coalition, but one thing is clear: it’s not going to get any easier.