"I was sitting there gawping in open-mouthed astonishment," Nick Harvey recalls. "I was in stunned disbelief". The former Lib Dem defence minister is remembering the moment Nick Clegg announced all infants would get free school meals. It is not a policy he is, to put it lightly, very keen on.
Speaking to The Huffington Post UK in his Westminster office, the North Devon MP is keen to explain why he is so irritated by his party leader's flagship party conference announcement.
In the interview Harvey also confidently predicts the outcome of the next election, barring a game-changing event: "Labour has already won". And suggests politicians and pundits should not be so confident that the Lib Dems would automatically want to stay in power after 2015 – even if they had the choice.
This year's conference season will be remembered for Ed Miliband's bold punt on a pledge to freeze energy prices. But September began with the Lib Dem leadership whipping out their own cost of living announcement. All infant school children will get free school meals.
"It was absolutely astonishing. It came from nowhere," he exclaims. "It seemed to be part of some coalition deal where it was meant to make the Lib Dems feel better about allowing the Tories to progress their wretched married couples tax allowance. I am supposed to rejoice at this other policy that seems to me to be squandering a lot of money".
It's not that Harvey is opposed to free school meals. Far from it. He has been campaigning on it from both within and from without government for some time. His problem is that, in a time of squeezed public spending, he wanted the free lunch to be given to poor children from when they started school at five to when they finished at 18.
Instead, Clegg decided to give the money to the youngest children while doing nothing for those who were older but poorer. The idea is to gradually roll it out to all age groups. But Harvey suspects this may take such a long time as to never happen.
"Suddenly bunny comes out of hat," Harvey mimes. "Someone, somewhere, has found £600m a year we didn’t know about down the back of a filing cabinet and has come up with the brilliant brainwave that the best way to spend it is to give a free school meal to all five, six and seven year olds - regardless of their income level. I am sitting there, gawping in open-mouthed astonishment," he says.
The announcement was all the more galling for Harvey as he had pressed David Laws back in 2010, before his "untimely demise", on the policy when his West Country colleague was chief secretary to the Treasury. Fast forward to 2012 and Laws is back in government and helpfully at the Department for Education. So Clegg and Laws botched it then? "Nick and David don’t believe for one minute they have botched it," Havey says. "They think that this is the best thing to do."
The Lib Dem leadership's argument is that poor children perform better in school when the entire class has free meals. Harvey says: "It’s not that I find there to be anything intrinsically wrong with providing a free school meals to all five, six and seven year olds. I am perfectly ready to believe that it is slightly more effective at closing the attainment gap. That’s perfectly plausible. But if the cost of doing that is you ignore the poor kids from eight to 18, I struggle to believe that overall this is doing more good.
"I can see it will be years and years and years before there will be any hope of getting it to secondary pupils. I think it’s a strange sense of priorities. It's not that I’m against giving kids a free school meal, it's just a very odd sense of priorities."
Free School Meals Was Nick Clegg's Big Conference Bunny
Harvey's gripe is connected to another Lib Dem policy – the pupil premium. Under the current system schools receive the extra pupil premium money based on the number of children eligible for free school meals. And eligibility for free school meals is based on the employment status of the parents.
Harvey argues that this means his constituency loses out because while unemployment rates are not necessarily higher than elsewhere, there is "chronic underemployment".
"You’ve got people working well below their skill levels in poorly paid jobs," he says. "It's complex, but basically, if you are in work you, very broadly, will not get a free school meal for your kids. It’s a double whammy because then pupil premium doesn’t come either because you don’t get it if you don’t get a free meal."
Harvey's North Devon constituency is not a wealthy part of the country. Out of 650 constituencies it is the 30th poorest. The neighbouring district is the poorest. "In raw politics terms the impoverished countryside, which is core territory for the Lib Dems, is losing out at the hands of Lib Dem policy," he sighs.
The former minister, he unexpectedly lost his job in the Ministry of Defence in the 2012 reshuffle, says the Lib Dems need to pay greater attention to the working poor "who typically are bound in impoverished rural constituencies which will typically be represented by Lib Dems. The poverty has caused people to slightly turn their backs on the Tories."
46 LIB DEM MPS AFTER 2015? I'LL TAKE IT!
The South West, home to Harvey's North Devon seat as well as that of education minister David Laws and former Home Office minister Jeremy Browne, is as close as it comes to safe Lib Dem territory. And it's not that safe.
Earlier this week Tory planning minister Nick Boles, a one time keen enthusiast for coalition, said Conservative MPs should consider running on a National Liberal ticket in Lib-Con marginals in order to turn the West Country blue. But there was also a hint that like-minded Lib Dems, such as Browne, may want to join in. "I think it would be a strategic error for the Lib Dems to attach themselves to either of the parties in a preferential manner at an election," Harvey says. "The history of the National Liberal thing is not a pretty one and a dependency would develop that would be unhealthy. We would do better to just take the pain and fight the thing clearly."
The "thing" is the 2015 general election. Which is only seventeen months away. This might be both a long and a short time in politics, but Harvey has a "clear sense" of what he thinks is going to happen. And even more than that, he is "astonished" that few others within the Westminster Village share his view.
"Stand fast a game changing event, which is always possible in the febrile political era in which we live, Labour is on course to win the next election," he declares. "This election is Labour’s to lose."
Nick Clegg Could End Up Putting Either David Cameron Or Ed Miliband Into No.10
In order for the Tories to win a majority the party would need to increase the 36% share of the vote it got in 2010. "Most people say it would be an absolutely crowning achievement," he says. "It’s very difficult to see why anyone would vote Tory next time who didn’t last time. There's not much history of incumbents gaining votes between elections. It would be a superlative accomplishment if the Tories were to achieve 36%." To gain votes in 2015, Harvey says, must be the "apex of their most wild fantasy of their ambition".
As for Labour, Harvey predicts that the lowest Ed Miliband will poll is 34% - having siphoned off around 5% of the Lib Dem vote. "That’s before they make any headway against the Tories in marginals. If 36% is the most the Tories could achieve and 34% is the least Labour is going to achieve, plot that on a seat predictor, Labour has already won. Labour has probably got a 15-seat majority. The collapse of the Lib Dem vote with most going to the Labour Party means that the Tories have probably lost two dozen seats before they even get out of bed."
Harvey concedes the Lib Dems will suffer in the popular vote. But he is confident that the parliamentary party will largely survive largely intact. "The smarter Tories will realise the collapse of our popular vote will have a far more devastating impact on them than it will on us. We will be able to concentrate on the seats that matter to us."
He adds: "Remember at the 1997 election we got 16% of the vote and 46 MPs. I’d take that now if that was on offer for the next election."
WE CAN'T MAKE THE SAME MISTAKES AGAIN
Harvey's analysis is compelling. Why, then, are so many Conservative MPs confident the party has turned a corner and are heading for victory? "People say to me 'oh people aren’t convinced by Mr Miliband, he’s got a funny voice and funny hair'. Well all the public knew about Thatcher in 1979 was she had a funny voice and funny hair. She was way behind Callaghan in personal ratings. But that didn’t stop her winning. I think people are writing the man off too lightly."
The obsession with the personal ratings of the party leaders is overplayed, Harvey suggests. "You've got three capable leaders in the field. I think Cameron’s problem is his party, but Cameron himself has a good profile and many admirable qualities. I think Nick has come through the hammering he got for being part of our first government in years and he is back in fine fettle now. The leaders are not going to be that much of an issue, it’s the underlying politics."
Clegg has attempted to stake out a position of equidistance between Labour and the Conservatives ahead of the next election. "A stronger economy and a fairer society" is the campaign line. But as polling day draws nearer, Lib Dem MPs will be hammered with questions about whether they would prefer a second roll in the hay with the Tories or a new Lib-Lab marriage. What does Harvey want to do? "There are perils in both. There are risks in both," he says. But ultimately he dodges, arguing that the chances of the election result allowing the Lib Dems the equal choice as to whether prop up either Labour or the Conservatives is "infinitesimally unlikely".
"We won’t get the choice. We don’t need to trouble ourselves. We are talking about a fluke within a fluke." This is because the Lib Dems will stick to the line that the party which wins the most votes and most seats will get the first chance to form a government. And it is also unlikely that the electoral maths will enable the Lib Dems to pick which larger party to drag over the finish line.
But there is one outcome that Harvey says is highly likely, if largely ignored. That the Lib Dems will choose to stay out of government altogether even if they offered another stint in coalition. "I don’t think you should take it as read there would be a stampede to join a coalition again," he cautions. "I think there would be serious debate to be had inside the Lib Dems as to whether we would do better to remain outside of government and let them form a minority government."
Harvey says the party needs to reflect on its time in power. "We can take a lot of pride and satisfaction in what has happened. But equally I think there are lessons to be learned. To have left the country with a minority government in the financial maelstrom of 2010 would, I think have been irresponsible. It doesn’t mean it wouldn’t always be irresponsible."
Harvey was a defence minister until 2012 when he was reshuffled by Clegg
If the Lib Dems get the opportunity, or have the desire, to stay in power, Harvey insists that the negotiating team need to drive a harder bargain than they did in 2010. "It was completely unacceptable to ask a national political party like the Lib Dems to come into government on a comprehensive deal and then have some departments in which there is no Lib Dem minister," he says. "Why on earth should we support any executive action or any legislation which came form a department in which we don’t have a minister, it's absolutely preposterous."
"If you don’t agree with something don’t agree to it," Harvey says, slapping his leg for emphasis. "In the nature of the horse trading that has gone on we have agreed to a lot of things that we don’t basically agree with and I don’t think we would make that same mistake again."
To achieve this he says that Clegg's veto over everything that passes over the prime minister's desk needs to be replicated in every department. "He got for himself an effective veto that has actually been what has made the coalition work. Without that it would have come apart. The same ought to obtain in every department. Which ever party has the secretary of state the other party should have the deputy secretary of state."
But of course one of the reasons there is no Lib Dem in the Ministry of Defence is that Clegg fired Harvey as a defence minister in 2012. "We didn’t secure enough positions in the first place," Harvey tells me. "The divvy up was more or less in line with the proportion of seats."
Instead, he says, ministerial numbers should have been decided on a much more Lib Dem basis of the share of the vote. "I would have thought our opening position would have been, 'you got 36%, we got 24%, you get 3/5 of the government we get 2/5 of the government'. We’d have hammered out something in the middle. Instead it all seemed to fall to the Tory's agenda."
"The Tories recognised the policy deal that was made at the outset set an agenda for the first year," Havey reflects. "And that thereafter the agenda would be set by having the right people in the right places. I don’t think we would make that same mistake again."