Cameronmoved so quickly that David Willetts, the higher education minister, was on live television defending the idea of removing free milk when the prime minister announced the U-turn, leaving broadcastersto tell Willetts of the change.
The idea of removing free milk had been the brainchild of the junior health minister, Anne Milton. The government expected opposition to the measure from the media,parents, nurseries, childminders and the dairy sector.
In a letter to the Scottish Office, Milton said: "Abolition of the scheme is likely to be highly controversial, particularly as this will affectsome children in low-income families."
However, she added: "This should not prevent us from ending an ineffective universal measure – and this would clearly be the best time to do it, given the stateof public finances and the need to make savings."
Milton said that the cost of running the scheme in England this year was nearly £50m and would rise to £59m in 2011-12. She said the programme didnot "provide value for money in difficult times" and had "become increasingly outdated".
Health was one department that had been due to have its budget protected in the autumn spending review.
Theplan had not been relayed to Cameron personally, and the swiftness of his response appears to show the resonance Thatcher's decision still has within Downing Street.
Thatcher's plan to halt free schoolmilk for the over-sevens as education secretary in 1970 remains one of the most remembered aspects of her political career.
Asked about Milton's plans on BBC1's Andrew Marr Show this morning,Willetts said: "We're having a comprehensive spending review, so we are looking at a whole range of options. This is one of the options that is being looked at.
"If it were to happen, and no final...