The Department for Education was in meltdown last night as Conservatives and Liberal Democrats traded insults over their policies, threatening to bring coalition relations to a four-year low.
A blazing row over funding for Michael Gove’s free schools programme and Nick Clegg’s expansion of free school meals became so bad that the two sides were unable to agree on a united response.
The education secretary was branded an “ideologically obsessed zealot” by a senior Lib Dem source yesterday amid claims that he raided a £400 million education fund set aside to address shortages of places to prop up his treasured free schools scheme.
It followed the publication of a tranche of leaked correspondence that suggested that Mr Clegg had misled the public on the costing model for his £1 billion free school meals policy, prompting a furious reaction from the Lib Dems.
On Saturday night, Whitehall officials drew up a press statement responding to the latest claims but this was vetoed by the Liberal Democrat schools minister, David Laws. In a rare move, Tory aides were forced to issue it in the name of Mr Gove alone.
David Cameron was forced to defend his education secretary yesterday against the claims that he had raided the Basic Need fund to plug a projected hole of £800 million in the budget for free schools.
“What the government is doing is spending £5 billion in this parliament expanding the number of school places,” the prime minister said. “Part of that is actually investing in free schools, most of which — in the primary schools — are in areas of high need, and they’re providing good new school places for people inside the state sector.”
A spokesman for Mr Gove did not deny that he had dipped into the budget to help free schools, but insisted that the money was being spent only in areas where more places were needed.
The row over free school meals has been simmering for months, but the latest outbreak of hostilities has its origins in remarks by Dominic Cummings, a former adviser to Mr Gove who was one of his closest allies until leaving the Department for Education at the end of 2013.
In an interview two weeks ago, Mr Cummings, who was one of the most controversial figures in the Conservative party, accused Mr Clegg of being a “self-obsessed” and “revolting character” who was so dishonest that he could not tell the difference between a truth and a lie.
In recent days, a set of leaks and counter-leaks have gripped the department.
Tory-Lib Dem relations were already strained by a dispute over knife crime, with the junior coalition partners left furious after the release of secret cabinet correspondence revealing the split.
Mr Clegg yesterday accused “an aggrieved Conservative” of “foolishly” being behind the decision to disclose letters that showed that he was blocking Conservative efforts to introduce mandatory jail terms for repeat knife offenders.
“This was a debate we were having within government and then someone, I think very foolishly, decided to publish some of the internal letters which of course circulate in government when you debate these things,” he told Sky News.