Babble in the Bubble: UFSM, Clegg’s lies, and the general dysfunction of the British state

I’m going to blog more on recent events later but for now, a rushed response for various people interested in Clegg on WATO just now… (Please post errors in comments and I’ll fix later. Updates at the end… UPDATED again 15/5.)


In September 2013, Clegg announced the UFSM gimmick at LibDem conference with no proper preparation or costing, and giving the DfE only hours notice. Absolutely typical of modern Westminster and a small example of broader dysfunction (HS2 and aircraft carriers are bigger examples of the broader dysfunction).

On 29 November, Gove wrote to HMT pointing out the DfE was already 400m overspent on capital.

On 3 December 2013, Clegg’s office told DfE that it would announce the next day new capital funding for kitchens. (Clegg’s office had forgotten about kitchens when they made the original announcement.)

DfE said (paraphrase)… Don’t announce stuff on this yet again on the back of a fag packet or it will go even more wrong. The numbers you want to announce are junk. 150m is not enough. You’re claiming 80m of it comes from ‘underspends’ – ‘it’s untrue’ (direct quote), we are 400m OVERspent on capital, what on earth are you talking about. You do not have clearance to announce this. (Clegg’s office: the media bids are booked, all systems are go, the DPM thinks you’re just jealous of his ace announcement.)

The next day on 4 December 2013, Clegg announced it all anyway without changing anything. Officials in the DfE press office refused to endorse Clegg’s figures because they knew they were lies. Clegg’s spin doctors went mad and told the BBC that the DfE had ‘gone rogue’. (They’ve got a partial point there but not in the way they mean.)

In January 2014, Laws then did a deal with HMT. 80m of unspent revenue was ‘converted’ to capital as part of an obscure HMT process called ‘budget exchange’. This 80m of newly created ‘capital’ was then dropped into the UFSM pot. This meant that technically the DfE could say that this was both ‘unspent money’ and ‘new’. Hey presto, Clegg hadn’t lied at all! It was ‘unspent’ and ‘new’ money! (Ps. I doubt Osborne was aware of this – I think it was signed off by Alexander.)

(Although I did have some very big disagreements with some officials, DfE officials behaved properly on this. The faults here cannot be blamed on them.)

In March 2014 I revealed some of this to WATO in the hope it would prompt some reflection in Downing Street about the way they let Clegg rampage around using his HA Committee as a blackmail weapon to extort money for his speeches / gimmicks.

Clegg and Laws said I was talking ‘utter balls’, I’m a ‘fantasist’ etc.

Some public spirited person leaked a load of emails to WATO showing that all my specific claims were true and Clegg and Laws were talking ‘utter balls’.

Instead of re-evaluating, Clegg went further off the deep end. Bad move. By yesterday, people in the Cabinet Office were wrapping cold towels around his head and pointing out this was a disaster for him. He then ran to Cameron begging him to ‘make Cummings stop’. In Downing Street, people sucked their teeth and said that might be tricky. Might Gove be able to? No, he doesn’t listen to anybody, he’s obsessed with his bloody essay… Mmm, Cleggy – best pipe down on this for a while…

WATO Today

Today Clegg goes on WATO. Is ambushed. Another public spirited person has tipped off WATO that the DfE Performance Committee has just moved UFSM to ‘red rated’ meaning there are serious chances of big problems. (Schools have a huge amount of change to cope with in September. Think of all the effort now being wasted that could have been spent on implementing the National Curriculum, or improving Ofsted. Gove warned Clegg and No10 of this happening and now he has to waste huge amounts of his time trying to sort out the mess, along with a load of officials who should be dealing with priorities.)

Clegg’s WATO response – this happens all the time in Whitehall [unintentionally this is both true and black comedy], everything will be fine, no it doesn’t mean Cummings was right about anything… He then uses the dodge Laws worked out in January – but botches it. ‘It’s unspent capital’ he said. Somewhere on the 7th floor of the DfE, the Permanent Secretary put his head in his hands and said to himself, can anybody make Clegg shut up about this, please, anybody…

When James McGrory tells the lobby ‘it’s all new capital, no story, nothing to see hear’ this afternoon, the answer is – This ‘new capital’ is funny money created out of thin air by budget exchange, and the DfE remains hundreds of millions overspent on capital because Danny Alexander (and others in government to be fair) never took Basic Need and maintenance seriously enough. And the programme has gone ‘red rated’ because too many people have no idea about a model for government other than government by gimmick and rubbish media grid…

Quick conclusion

A few people have asked why I am bothering. It obviously makes Gove’s life harder in some ways. UFSM is hardly the biggest issue around. True. But it is a good case study of general political dysfunction. In a small way it shows why we live in a constant series of gimmicks, cockups, and waste. It shows the daily routines of Westminster that operate against having serious people in charge of things – people who know how to set priorities, focus, and manage complex processes. It is a case study for my essay.

My point is: we need a serious change in how we are governed. My essay is an attempt at sketching some features of such a new approach that could bring people into politics with real talents, instead of just those who climb to the top of party hierarchies, and how we could build new institutions. Why do we have to be governed by Cleggs while our finest minds, entrepreneurs, and so on are shut out of government? Project management is not hard in the same way that theoretical physics is hard – there are tried and trusted methods that a lot of people without exceptional talents can use – yet we can’t embed it in government. Surgeons and pilots create ‘checklists’ to avoid repeated errors but we have… UFSM, aircraft carriers, HS2…

My essay also suggests that we should put education and science at the heart of our national policy instead of treating it as a piggybank for Cleggs to use when they need to fill a hole in their media grid.

Read a summary here:

Clegg now is asking Cameron for ‘a truce’. It’s the wrong question. This is not about personal grudges or party politics – it’s about whether we can do better than the system we’re stuck with. I don’t care whether powerful people are cross – if I cared about that, we’d never have done anything in the DfE. He’d be better off if someone puts a copy of my essay  in his weekend box and (as he gazes out the window, closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath) he spends 20 minutes reflecting on the question: ‘am I bending the truth too much, is it possible that this prick has at least a bit of a point?‘ (Don’t think ‘the rest of the Cabinet does the same’, Nick, focus on yourself.)

Ps. 1. I don’t care about this myself but there’s a depressing irony for Clegg. Clegg is so rubbish at communications that even if the public is happy with UFSM in September, nobody will know it was Clegg’s idea: Cameron will get the credit with the public and Gove will get the credit in Westminster for sorting out the mess.

2. Clegg thinks he can overcome the strategic disaster of tuition fees by picking fights with his own government on page 10 of the papers. If he or his staff understood strategy and communications, they’d know he has been on a doomed mission for the past two years. 1000 page 10 stories of babble in the bubble won’t undo one big mistake…


[Added later as things occur to me…]

Ps. 3. To hacks looking for follow-up angles tomorrow, it’s been mentioned before but has not got proper attention… The nonlinear effects of  ‘Clegging’ an announcement… Clegg and Laws forgot that by bringing in UFSM, they accidentally knackered the mechanism for distributing the Pupil Premium. The PP is based on eligibility for FSM – but if you make FSM universal, there is no ‘qualification’ for FSM. So because they did not think through one gimmick, they accidentally blew a hole in a multi-billion pound project that they had planned to make a centrepiece of their ‘achievements’ at the next election. When I left on 31 January there was no solution for this. Is there one yet? The UFSM gimmick removed the focus of FSM from the poorest and instead extended middle-class welfare. It would be particularly black irony if the manner of its introduction hit the poorest hardest by undermining the PP. Fingers crossed some brilliant DfE officials have managed to find a way to get everybody out of this hole…

Ps. 4. I said yesterday that in his rage Clegg had accidentally repositioned himself against Free Schools and he would execute a clumsy double reverse ferret. On C4 now, he’s pursuing both lines – he’s back to ‘Cummings is an unknown loopy’ (having told Cameron and Heywood yesterday he was going to shut up about me) and is claiming ‘I’m really pro-Free Schools’. ‘Loopy’ doesn’t work with the lobby. (If he’d said ‘eccentric’ he’d get more traction.) But he’s also boxed himself in on another front. Like Labour, he can’t decide whether to attack Free Schools to win votes from one subsection of the public, or to support Free Schools to win votes from a different subsection. And by making it obvious to everybody that everything he says is motivated by self-preservation, he lacks any moral credibility – the most vital commodity in politics.

Ps. 5. A few have emailed saying what should No10 do? The most obvious thing that is also just faintly imaginable, depending on the psychological state of No10 at the time, is: a) After the euro elections when Clegg’s eyes are straining at the TV watching for signs of a coup, DC calls in Heywood and tell him the HA Committee system is changing, Cameron will chair HA from now, no more blackmail from Clegg; b) shunt Clegg into a corner with a fig leaf for his ego, something grand-sounding but fundamentally trivial (Heywood is very good at this); c) DC tells Llewellyn ‘we are going to stop using the DfE as a piggybank to buy off Clegg, he’s finished, we don’t need to, that phase is over’; d) Osborne has a friendly chat with Danny – ‘Danny you’ve done SUCH a good job, I now need you to have a crack at X, so-and-so will be taking over these other trivial duties from you from now, time you moved up in the world…’ Won’t solve everything but it would be a start (and it would give Gove’s team space to embed reforms and think about explaining them without constant stupid Whitehall battles over trivia). Odds of Clegg walking out on Coalition (which is what Llewellyn has nightmares about)? <5%.  There’s a decentralised ‘what Tory Cabinet Ministers could do themselves if they don’t mind a cross call from Llewellyn’ version of this idea but I’ll keep that to myself for now while I try to persuade someone (not Gove) to do it. Have a crack in comments if you want…

Ps. 6. UPDATE: Clegg, a Manchurian Candidate…

I’ve explained my goals and why prolonging the story suits me, and how Clegg can’t win. I’ve posted it on a blog for Clegg’s staff and No10 to read. And the BBC has printed a string of emails proving that I am telling the truth and Clegg is lying. And Clegg is trying to fight an election yet steps on his own story every time he does an interview because he won’t stop talking about me and food.

Yet, and yet… Does Clegg decide to pipe down? No! Does anybody in Downing Street lock him in his study? No – they send him out this morning like a balloon that they’ve let go of, to whizz around the broadcast studios making himself even more of a laughing stock and advancing my goals again.

Clegg has become a Manchurian Candidate…

A mole has filled me in…

Yesterday, Clegg storms along that funny little corridor from his office to Cameron’s office, an increasingly frequent event. ‘Gove’s making me look a fool, I demand that you make him sign a joint op-ed with Laws.’

DC wearily, with that bored pained expression he gets: ‘Yeahsss, ok, Ed will call him if you reeaally want Nick. You did say on Monday that it’d be best to pipe down though, are you suuuuure this is wise…?’

‘Yes, if Gove signs up then the media will change the story, they’ll see Cummings is lying.’

‘Mmmm, ok, Ed, call Gove, he’ll play ball, Nick, don’t worry. Jeremy, have we got anywhere with…’

Yes, this is how the people in charge of dealing with nuclear weapons, the EU, ‘flash crashes’, and terrorism are spending their time these days.

Gove being Gove says, ‘Yes no problem Ed [Llewellyn]’, before giving the piece a few little twists. Laws, himself now deranged on the subject and searching under his desk hourly for my moles (he won’t take them alive), signs it off not realising that the piece is a Gove joke.

Gove is very happy – the PM, happy. Henry Dimbleby, happy. Cleggy and Laws, happy. And Dom… VERY HAPPY! (Droll, Michael, very droll, I would have said ‘take out the Bruce Willis bit, Laws will never wear that’ but you got away with it.)

Then, it gets worse. Clegg tells his spin doctors ‘make sure the Times realise I got Cameron to order Gove to do it’. Yes!

And nobody in No10 said, ‘Errrr, but Nick I thought we were trying to convince everybody that Gove really does love this policy, if we brief that we forced him to do it, then we make our own story incredible, maybe we should shut up and stop talking about food since that prick wants us to keep going and his bloody moles keep leaking on us…’ (It’s a bit like that scene in Dr Strangelove where the guy screams – what’s the point of having a doomsday weapon if you forget to tell anyone about it… What’s the point of forcing someone to say ‘I really do agree’ if you tell everybody you had a gun to his head?!)

Clegg, let me explain a few things to you, I am telling you the truth if only you would believe that.

A. My motives are what I’ve put on my blog. You think I’m trying to help the Conservative Party. No no no!

B. This op-ed helps me. It does not help you. You see, I want this story to keep running. I want people in Whitehall to think, ‘I don’t want to be the next school food story.’ You, if you had sense, would be trying to make it stop. The more you push back, the worse it will get. Every time you rant in another interview that I’m loopy, it helps me. It just means more people read my blog, read the leaked emails, and conclude you’re a liar – and it makes it more likely that people will do what I want.

C. You cannot turn the story around now. Nobody with an IQ >75 is going to believe you when the leaked emails show I was telling the truth.

D. Not only do you not understand what my goal is, you don’t know what your own goal is. If you walk into your private office right now and say ‘Lucy, everyone, what the hell are we trying to do in this row on UFSM?’, everyone will have different answers. And someone will be thinking ‘you don’t know yourself Nick, you keep screwing your own interviews by engaging with that prick Cummings’ (but they won’t say it because you, like most people at the top of the greasy pole, don’t encourage criticism, hence constant errors.) You have a vague hope this nightmare can be turned around, but you don’t know how to do it. It can’t. Because your organisation, strategy, and message are hopeless and you don’t even have clarity about your own goal.

E. I blew this up because I want people in No10 to realise that every time between now and next May that they interfere in the DfE with some stupid gimmick, the story might go badly wrong because someone will leak something. I want Cameron to grit his teeth and say ‘Cleggy, I know you need your gimmicks, and you can have them, but why don’t you go and play somewhere else, if you go near the DfE again, it will probably just go tits up. Now, look Cleggy, Transport, trains, they’re shiny Cleggy, men in overalls and hardhats Cleggy, very good for TV Cleggy, aren’t they Dre-ster?’

The Dre-ster: ‘Very good PM, MUCH better territory than schools, you are so clever PM, you always get it right.’

‘Quiet, Dre, Nick’s thinking…’

Of course, maybe you’ll all just plough on. But you see – I haven’t lost anything. At least I’ve tried to keep your incompetent noses out of schools.

Back in 2004 I helped with the campaign that won the referendum on the North East Regional Assembly. Thanks to the talents (not of me but) of James Frayne and my uncle Phil, a 70:30 Yes turned into a 80:20 No, with a few thousand quid against an entirely hostile North East establishment. One of the things I remember from that campaign is that a moment arrived after which every time our opponents did anything, they lost and we gained. It didn’t matter what it was. It didn’t even matter if it was a good idea. The media turned it into a disaster. They were screwed, their internal cohesion imploded. Colonel Boyd used to call it ‘being inside your opponent’s decision-cycle’. In communication campaigns, this happens because your organisation works and your strategy and message are right. It doesn’t happen often. (NB. Frayne became director of communications in the DfE in 2011. No coincidence things turned around.)

Clegg – it looks to me like you are in this position now. Of course, I could be over-optimistic and maybe something will turn up for you. But it seems to me that, now, whatever you do advances my goals. Your credibility is zero. Everything you try will go wrong. You have become a Manchurian Candidate – you force people to read my essay and think about my critique of the system. As they say in Moscow, ‘thank God for fools.’ 





A few thoughts on free school meals, Ofsted, and an answer to S Jenkins

Simon Jenkins has written a bizarre piece in the Evening Standard, here. As well as answering that, I’ll explain a few others things about it… (See

Unfortunately, he has completely misunderstood the basics of the universal free school meals fiasco.

He writes: ‘Gove decided, by a deal with Nick Clegg, that running every school meant insisting every child have a “proper meal”. The order went out over Christmas. Gove would be first to admit he has never run a whelk stall and was surprised to discover that schools were having trouble becoming Jamie Oliver academies overnight… Comrade Stalin himself would have warmed to the tears of gratitude.’

Where to start?! SJ clearly thinks that we did ‘a deal’ with Clegg because we wanted to do this UFSM gimmick. He must have missed the news all week. The whole point of what I’ve been saying is that a) the DfE was not told about the UFSM announcement by Clegg at his party conference (until hours before it became public) because it was a quad deal; b) after the announcement we  warned repeatedly that the way Clegg was trying to do the gimmick would cause big problems; c) his funding numbers were junk, his claims to the media of a DfE ‘underspend’ were fictitious since we actually had an overspend  of hundreds of millions, and finding the money for the gimmick from our maintenance budget, as we were told to do, would mean fewer collapsing school roofs fixed. We told Clegg these things before he told the media his tale.

When the Select Committee looks at the email traffic between the offices, it will see – and publicly confirm – the accuracy of the above paragraph. It will also show that Clegg’s claims that what I have said were ‘utterly, totally wrong’, and Laws’s claim that I am talking ‘utter balls’, were untrue. (I could prove it with 10 minutes effort now but it will be better to wait for the proper inquiry.)

Also, some basic logic confirms the truth of what I’ve said. Why did Laws have to hand out the money for the UFSM gimmick on the basis of ‘numbers of pupils per LA’? Because there was no time to find out which schools have no kitchen and therefore need the money. Why has the DfE had to add to the £150m? Because the original Clegg announcement was not enough, as we warned (e.g. on 4 December 2013). Why has Clegg had to drop his promise everyone will get a ‘hot’ meal? Because he made that promise without agreement with DfE then was told it was impossible to deliver by September 2014. (And why is David Laws in meetings about the effects on the Pupil Premium? Because they didn’t think before launching the gimmick about the knock-on effects, given the PP uses FSM as its eligibility criterion.)

Jenkins then writes: ‘Worse is the plethora of special advisers whom Cameron has allowed into government. These people have nothing to do except further their boss’s career. They leak and plot and lobby. In Gove’s case a “shadowy army” of schemers have done his reputation harm…’

If SJ knew what was going on in the lobby, he would know that I have consistently and repeatedly said the same thing on and off the record about Gove and the leadership – he would be a bad leader and nobody should encourage the idea. You will not find anybody in the lobby who says I have pushed that silly idea to them – I have knocked it down hundreds of times since 2007. So has Henry de Zoete. Understandably, nobody understands what our jobs were. I spent less than 1% of my time dealing with the media. My job was: what are our priorities, what policies can advance them, project manage them through the DfE, try to suppress the chaos-inducing entropic forces of Westminster/Whitehall. (One of the reasons our team could operate as we did was that MG did not want to be leader and we did not want to be MPs.)

Jenkins then writes: ‘Yet he wants to excuse “his” academies and so-called free schools from the same draconian inspection for discipline and curriculum that he imposes on local authority schools. This is a clear double standard.’

Completely wrong. Not just wrong – the opposite of the truth. The only ‘pressure’ we put on Ofsted was to reform itself quickly to avoid the many cockups. E.g. It is obviously bad for Ofsted to say ‘Outstanding’ then days later the school has a major sex scandal. Our ‘pressure’ on Ofsted was for  Academies and Free Schools to be treated in the same way as others – not the opposite. Why? Nobody in their right mind would think that trying to cover up problems was a successful way to embed the policy. Our main concern about Ofsted from the beginning was the gap between stated policy and actual practice. I think this was a reasonable concern given the evidence. (I will write separately about the Ofsted issue because there are many misunderstandings about it after Wilshaw’s unfortunate interview.)

Does SJ think that me raising this UFSM issue now helps Gove politically? It does not – it angers Clegg’s and Cameron’s team. Why did I do it? Because our team went to the DfE to improve schools. We did not go there to help politicians like Clegg try to buy his way into positions of power by bribing people with taxpayers’ money. We spent a huge amount of time trying to stop gimmicks from all over Whitehall, to limit Whitehall’s interference with schools, and to save taxpayers’ money. We tried to resist the widespread culture among ministers of – ‘I’m making a speech next week, I need a new announcement for the lobby, tell Gove to give me a hundred million for [summer schools, meals, nurseries, insert gimmick as appropriate].’ If Clegg gets a black eye on this gimmick, my hope is that it will be harder for them to push more silly gimmicks on schools over the next year. I will be similarly honest about gimmicks from the Conservatives if they come.

People tell me that SJ is a nice man and the only time I spoke to him at length we had a pleasant chat, but he should do some research before writing his columns – even just reading the papers! – to avoid spreading confusion. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons to disagree with what Gove’s team did or is doing. SJ should focus on those since he clearly does not like Academies.

Note. Below is a transcript of an email exchange between me and the World At One that was played on Radio 4, 11 March 2014. 

WATO: How did the policy come about in the first place?

Me: Clegg’s team tried to persuade us to do it in 2013. We refused. So Clegg said to Cameron in secret before party conferences, ‘you give me this and I’ll give you your marriage tax announcement for Tory conference, Gove refuses to do it so you’ll have to force him.’ The DfE wasn’t told until about an hour or so before the announcement. No policy work was done in advance.

WATO: Did the Department for Education support the policy and did it believe it would work?

Me: Officials in DfE were unanimous that it was a bad gimmick and introduced in a way that makes it hard to avoid implementation chaos. Officials were obviously right.

WATO: What warnings did the Department for Education give about the idea?

Me: We told Clegg a) it was a bad idea in principle as there were much bigger priorities for spending a billion quid; b) if he and DC were determined on it, do not rush it in, it would impose big demands on schools (e.g. new kitchens) at a time when they have a lot of really important changes to adapt to, that we wouldn’t be able to do it sensibly in time, and c) that all the figures bandied about were junk and he should not say them publicly.

WATO: What form did the warnings take? (emails? Meetings? Letters?)

Me: All three.

WATO: Where did the £150m budget for capital spending on kitchens and dining rooms come from?

Me: It was a back of the fag packet number by Clegg’s spin doctors. We told them it was rubbish. It is based on a supposed DfE underspend that did not exist and they were told it did not exist. Because Clegg only thinks about politics – and starts every meeting saying ‘I haven’t been able to read the policy papers but let’s talk about the politics’ – he assumed that our opposition was because it was a Clegg idea but it wasn’t. Our opposition was because it is a dumb idea badly executed that shows why politicians should have less power over schools, and although I had many disagreements with Whitehall officials and the methods of the civil service, this is very firmly the fault of Clegg and NOT CIVIL SERVANTS IN GENERAL AND THE DFE IN PARTICULAR.