The shadow education secretary Angela Rayner claimed Conservative ministers were “in full-scale retreat from their own manifesto” after the government admitted it was still reflecting on the pledge to scrap free school lunches.
The Tories’ manifesto promised to replace universal free meals for infant school children – which were introduced by Nick Clegg during the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition – with breakfasts (classed as cheaper). The plan was to use the money saved to bolster school budgets.
In a written answer to a parliamentary question submitted by Rayner this weekend, the education minister Robert Goodwill said: “We are reflecting on our programmes in relation to school meals and will come forward with proposals in due course.”
The policy was widely expected to be among those ditched, along with a proposal to lift the ban on building grammar schools, by Theresa May as she adjusts to the political backdrop of a hung parliament.
But the government is also under pressure to underpin schools’ budgets, amid widespread disquiet among Conservative MPs about planned revisions to the schools funding formula.
Rayner said: “The coalition of chaos is crumbling before our eyes. Today’s admission, slipped out in a written answer, that their flagship education policy may be abandoned before it is even launched is just the latest sign that Theresa May’s ministers are now in full-scale retreat from their own manifesto.
“They need to end the confusion by explaining to the public and parliament what their education policy actually is. If they still think they can snatch the food from our children’s mouths then we will fight them all of the way.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said they had nothing to add to the written answer.
The manifesto described the scrapping of universal free lunches as an “important decision”, noting: “We do not believe that giving school lunches to all children free of charge for the first three years of primary school – regardless of the income of their parents – is a sensible use of public money”.
Uncertainty about the government’s education policy was exacerbated at the weekend by the admission of Damian Green, the first secretary of state, that there was a national debate on university tuition fees, which Labour’s manifesto had pledged to scrap.
Speaking at a conference in London, Green, who is May’s de facto deputy, defended the fees but conceded that they had become a “huge issue”.
On Sunday, Michael Gove, who is now environment secretary, launched a robust defence of tuition fees, saying graduates should “pay something back”.
Gove, who was brought back into cabinet in the post-election reshuffle, said placing the burden on graduates was the fairest way of ensuring universities were properly resourced. “If we have to fund higher education, and if people who get university degrees go on to earn well, they should pay something back, which is what the current system does. It’s wrong if people who don’t go to university find that they have to pay more in taxation to support those who do.”
His backing for the policy echoed a similar argument from the universities minister Jo Johnson, who in a tweet on Saturday said funding universities from general taxation would be regressive.
A proposal to abolish tuition fees became a rallying cry for the Labour party during the general election campaign and was widely regarded as having helped boost support among younger voters.
Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, highlighted the policy at an anti-austerity rally in the capital on Saturday, promising to “end the debt burden and scrap tuition fees”.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, Gove said: “I believe fundamentally that the purpose of government policy is to support everyone equally, and if you don’t benefit from a university education you shouldn’t have to pay additionally to support those who do.”
That argument was later ridiculed by some critics, including Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who tweeted: “Imagine applying this logic to the NHS. If we only pay for what benefits us as individuals what happens to society?”
The Labour MP Jess Phillips pointed out that taxpayers who would not see the benefits of the extra £1bn-plus being invested in Northern Ireland, arising from the prime minister’s deal with the DUP, would still have to pay for the boost.
Gove defended that deal on the Andrew Marr Show, insisting it did not amount to a bung. He said: “The reason why we are investing in Northern Ireland – and it’s not just DUP voters, it’s all the people in Northern Ireland who are getting this additional investment – is that there are some unique problems that flow from the Northern Ireland Troubles.”
He also pointed out that some aspects of the new Northern Ireland agreement would benefit voters across the UK, singling out the retention of the triple-lock on pensions. A Tory manifesto pledge to do away with that safeguard was ditched at the behest of the DUP.
Pressed on how the extra money would be found, Gove said: “It comes, as all other taxpayers’ money comes, from you and I and other hard-working people.”