As the overblown furore over school milk came and, almost as quickly, went after David Cameron stepped in, I was left feeling a bit sorry for Anne Milton, the coalition’s Conservative public health minister.
Not very sorry, as I will explain, but certainly a bit.
I wanted to establish how old Ms Milton was in 1971 when the then education secretary first broke into serious national consciousness as “Milk Snatcher”
It is a nasty business being caught up in a media firestorm at any time of the year, but especially so in the annual not-much-happening silly season when the smallest spark in the tinder dry undergrowth can create a blaze.
The first thing I did on hearing the news was to ungallantly Google the minister’s age, the second thing to reach for Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs. Why?
I wanted to establish how old Ms Milton was in 1971 when the then education secretary first broke into serious national consciousness as “Milk Snatcher.”
The answer is 15 and I am sure young Anne’s attention was more intently focused on boys at the time. In a budget cutting crisis like our own Thatcher had decided to save money on free milk for the seven to 11 age group to protect the core school budget, and won initial support.
But the media - tabloids as well as The Guardian - turned against her and Labour exploited the row with as much enthusiasm as Andy Burnham and other leadership candidates have been denouncing “chaos”, U-turns and heartless “policy on the hoof” this week.
“I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit… In future, if I were to be hanged, it would be for a sheep, not a lamb, still less a cow,” Thatcher wrote 20 years later. In the interval she had slaughtered a lot of sheep.
Though he got his Second World War wrong this summer (America fighting Hitler in 1940?) prime minister Cameron obviously got the milky political reference as soon as Ms Milton’s letter surfaced in Scotland, almost certainly the first he had heard of it. You can’t just float the very idea of saving £60m a year on kids’ milk. It is like bread or water, symbolic. Politicians proceed with care. So the PM shut the row down. Well done, Dave.
Milton first won marginal Guildford only in 2005, but she is an experienced local politician and smart, she backed the last three winners of Tory leadership contests. She will learn.
Where I find it harder to overlook Milton’s would-be milk snatch is that she is in charge of public health.
Ok, she says there is no evidence that milk helps strengthen little bones, but most experts think it does. It is certainly better than cola and crisps. We could put it all down to the kind of mistakes new ministers make; little harm done.
Except that it seems at one with the Lansley team’s overview of public health, which is to place more responsibility on individuals.
It is downgrading the Food Standards Agency, set up by Labour in 2000 in response to the BSE and salmonella crises of the Thatcher/Major years, at a time when the better response might have been to expand its terms to include environmentally sustainable food habits as well as healthy, affordable ones.
At the weekend Andrew Lansley’s view got some support from Professor Steve Field, chair of the Royal College of GPs, who attacked reckless and ingrained public abuse of food, drink and tobacco.
But even he envisages an important role for government - chivvying individuals, badgering food industries - instead of rolling over as ministers usually do.
“The state can provide healthcare, but it can’t provide health,” say senior Tories.
True, but only up to a point. Free milk for tots is state provision. Taking it away does not help.