Downing Street has been accused of making policy "on the hoof" after abruptly dumping coalition plans to scrap free school milk.
Number 10 stamped on the controversial idea despite health minister Anne Milton insisting the provision for under-fives was "outdated", "ineffective", and too expensive.
The U-turn happened just hours after the proposal emerged publicly and so quickly that universities minister David Willetts was left floundering in a television interview as he was informed the position had changed.
The mooted cut was set to prove politically explosive, with echoes of Margaret Thatcher's removal of free school milk for over-sevens in 1971. That decision earned the then-education secretary the nickname "Thatcher Milk Snatcher". It could also have caused more friction within the coalition, as senior Liberal Democrats have previously praised the provision of free milk.
The Nursery Milk scheme allows children under five in approved day care to receive 189ml (1/3 pint) of milk free each day. But in a leaked letter to the Scottish Government, Ms Milton said the cost had almost doubled in the past five years to some £50 million and there was "no evidence that it improves the health of very young children".
Ironically, the Tory minister warned in her missive that abolishing the scheme across the UK by next April would be fiercely opposed by the media, parents, nurseries, childminders and the dairy sector, "particularly as this will affect some children in low-income families".
"However, this should not prevent us from ending an ineffective universal measure - and this would clearly be the best time to do it given the state of public finances and the need to make savings," she added. Ms Milton suggested that the value of Healthy Start vouchers - which are given to pregnant women and children under four and can be used to buy milk or fresh fruit and vegetables - could be increased to compensate.
Asked about the plan on the BBC's Andrew Marr on Sunday, Mr Willetts initially confirmed it was on the table. But even as the minister spoke, Downing Street was making clear to reporters that David Cameron "did not like the idea" of cancelling free milk and it would "not be happening". When this information was conveyed to Mr Willetts on screen, he replied hurriedly: "We have an endless process of assessing options. Of course, it is inevitable that if you go through those decisions some options go ahead and others don't."
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham insisted the "shambolic" events over nursery milk raised doubts over Mr Cameron's confidence in his ministers and said: "Scrapping free milk for under-fives was clearly a firm policy proposal, otherwise the public health minister would not have been writing to her counterparts in the devolved administrations. For the Prime Minister to undermine his ministers in this way - astonishingly while one is live on air in the middle of a TV interview - reveals the true extent of the policy chaos within his government."
On Monday Downing Street defended the way Mr Cameron had intervened in the decision-making process, as a No 10 spokeswoman said: "The Prime Minister made his decision and that decision has been made known. This is a policy that has been in place since the Second World War. More particularly, you have to look at the impact on poorer, more vulnerable members of society. The Prime Minister felt that keeping milk for the under-fives was part of that."