Marcus Rashford. File
Andrew Grice, The Independent
If Boris Johnson hoped that handing Marcus Rashford an MBE would make him less of a thorn in the government’s side, then he has already been proved spectacularly wrong.
The government is embroiled in a second war of words with the Manchester United and England footballer about whether free school meals should be provided during all school holidays. In hours, 100,000 people signed a petition calling for greater access to free school meals, increase the value of healthy start vouchers and provide activities during holidays to end “holiday hunger”.
Although the Welsh government has guaranteed free meals in school breaks from this month’s half-term to next Easter at a cost of £11m, Downing Street has refused to follow suit in England. Rashford said: “For too long this conversation has been delayed. Child food poverty in the UK is not a result of COVID-19. We must act with urgency to stabilise the households of our vulnerable children.”
His campaign won the backing of Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England. She told Times Radio that “food insecurity” affected millions of families and it was time for the government to be “bold and generous”.
On the face of it, the government looks foolish to stage a replay with Rashford. The 22-year-old’s clever, high-profile campaign for free meals forced it into a swift climbdown in June, one of many U-turns in a troubled year. Some Tory MPs think Johnson has made the wrong call and will end up with the same result.
Robert Halfon, who chairs the Education Committee, described the government’s decision as “very disappointing”. He has tabled a Commons motion, signed by five fellow Tories, saying a food hunger strategy would also “address inequalities, improve the long-term health and resilience of the population, reduce childhood obesity, improve children’s academic performance, support parents to stay in work during the holidays, and ease the strain on the welfare system”.
Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, is already worried about the ever-growing cost of coronavirus amid further restrictions in the second wave. Yet the cost of free meals in school holidays would be relatively small compared to the political hit the Tories would suffer if they stand firm.
Appearing Scrooge-like, especially during the Christmas break, would fuel a dangerous narrative about “uncaring Tories”, which is already building as local leaders in the north oppose restrictions they say are being “imposed by London”.
Louise Casey, until recently the government’s adviser on homelessness and who has 20 years experience in Whitehall, told the BBC that conditions on the ground are now worse than under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. She asked: “Do we want to go back to the days where people can’t put shoes on the children’s feet? Are we actually asking people in places like Liverpool to go out and prostitute themselves, so that they could put food on the table?”
Ministers also have a big dilemma over whether to extend a £20-a-week coronavirus top-up to universal credit when it expires next April. The Treasury is nervous, but imposing a £1,000-a-year benefits cut on six million poor families would not be clever politics, yet keeping the bonus forever would cost an eventual £6bn a year.
There are reasons why ministers think they might get a different result against Rashford this time, perhaps even scramble a messy draw. As Downing Street argued: “We took that decision to extend free school meals during the pandemic when schools were partially closed during lockdown. We’re in a different position now with schools back open to all pupils.”
Johnson’s spokesperson added: “It’s not for schools to regularly provide food to pupils during the school holidays. We believe the best way to support families outside of term time is through universal credit rather than government subsidising meals.”
Although Rashford rightly grabbed the headlines in June, the government also climbed down then because a backbench Tory rebellion threatened a humiliating Commons defeat. This time, Tory MPs might feel they have more pressing battles, notably against further coronavirus restrictions that would harm the economy.
Yet the widening north-south divide poses a real political risk to Johnson’s grip on the “red wall” voters who flocked to him last December. A quick tactical retreat might be preferable to a bloody nose. As Rashford put it: “This is not going away anytime soon and neither am I.”