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Stopping free milk would have been a 'duck house cut'

By Tim Montgomerie

24 hours ago I was in two minds about Downing Street's decision to save free milk for under 5s but reading Matthew d'Ancona in the London Evening Standard I think Team Cameron made the right decision:

"The cuts that cause Cameron and Osborne most trouble will be the small but deeply symbolic ones. Not the unfathomable statistics — the billions and trillions — nor the outright abolition of public bodies and schemes, nor even the tough principles that underlie Iain Duncan Smith's planned welfare revolution. It will be the petty indignities, the minor outrages, the sudden absences of small but reassuring services that trigger public fury. Remember the anger 10 years ago over Labour's 75p pension increase? That was primarily a row about dignity, not economics."

Just as cheapish but targeted tax cuts can be more politically potent than difficult-to-understand but expensive tax cuts, so the wrong kind of spending reductions can be politically explosive for a government. Just think about the MPs' expenses row. It was the (rejected) application for a duck house rather than the much, much more expensive abuses that most captured the public's imagination. Stopping free milk for Johnny had exactly the same potential without saving a decisive amount of money.

The Government's limited political capital needs to be preserved for the bigger ticket battles to come. IDS' Universal Benefit springs to mind.

5.45pm: In the comments thread below, Andrew Lilico thinks I'm wrong. Cameron must be prepared to be hated, he writes:

"The key argument *against* u-turning on the milk in the way that they did (I currently have no view on whether free milk should actually be dropped) is precisely the argument you offer in *favour* of the strategy, namely that the public will focus on symbolic issues of this sort. The reason I think you’re wrong is that it is hopeless to imagine that the government can achieve what it needs to in the way of spending cuts without creating dozens upon dozens of such symbolic issues upon which it will be hated. So if it isn’t even prepared to countenance one – not even prepared to countenance one being on the table for consideration – then what credibility has the whole cuts agenda? It goes to the heart of the strategy. Cameron appears to believe that there is some way of doing this that will not get him hated. He is completely wrong, and there is no way that this can be done if the Prime Minister doesn’t understand and embrace that inconvenient truth."


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