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Will the Government U-turn on the issue?

This was first published in The Telegraph’s Refresher newsletter. For more facts and explanation behind the week’s biggest political stories, sign up to the Refresher here – straight to your inbox every Wednesday afternoon for free.

What’s the story?

It’s the political football that has defined a year of turmoil and uncertainty.

England striker Marcus Rashford is again putting pressure on the Prime Minister to extend free school meals over the Christmas holidays.

After dominating headlines for a week, a series of senior Tories have now warned that they could vote against the Government if there is a fresh Commons vote on the issue.

It looks as if Boris Johnson will be moved to act by expanding funding for holiday clubs, but the question is whether the plans will go far enough to calm the current groundswell of feeling.

Labour has said it will bring the issue back into the House of Commons if the Government does not back down and public support for the cause continues to grow.

As many as 100 Tory MPs are privately supportive of an extension of the provision and publicly senior figures have expressed concerns.

One MP told the Refresher: “It’s a messaging disaster. Many of us are wondering how Number 10 did not see this coming.

“Even those who do not support extending free school meals as a principle are baffled that the Government hasn’t bothered to think up an alternative.”

Meanwhile, the Chair of the all-powerful Liaison Select Committee Sir Bernard Jenkin warned that the Government had “misunderstood the mood of the nation”.

The political row was fuelled by a Labour Opposition Day motion last week on whether to extend free school meals over the Christmas holidays.

Labour’s motion was defeated by 322 votes to 261 but a handful of Tory MPs voted against the Government.

They included Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the Commons education committee, who said: “If we acknowledge that children risk going hungry in term time by providing them with free school meals, despite the provision of Universal Credit and the other things that have been mentioned by the Government, we know that they risk going hungry in the holidays too.”

To defend their position, ministers attempted to highlight the £9 billion invested in the welfare system as well as the £63 million hardship fund for local councils.

But the sensitive nature of the subject meant their explanations did little to deflect the anger.

Social media descended to its mud-slinging worst and many Tory MPs received a torrent of abuse from their constituents for voting against the motion.

Members of the 2019 intake of “Red Wall” Conservative MPs have complained to ministers and party whips that the Government failed to adequately prepare for the “inevitable” resurgence of calls for the scheme to be extended.

One MP said: “It didn’t take a genius to work out that this was going to come back and we had all summer to either figure out an alternative or have a communications plan in place.”

Looking back

The campaign for free school meals has been led by England striker Marcus Rashford.

Growing up on a council estate, Mr Rashford would often listen to his mother crying herself to sleep at night as she struggled to provide for their family.

In a moving open letter to MPs he wrote: “As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, and the kind actions of neighbours and coaches.

“Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us; I recall very clearly our visits to Northern Moor to collect our Christmas dinners every year.”

Around 1.4 million children, and close to one in five state school pupils, received free school meals in England before the pandemic. Analysis suggests a further 900,000 children have sought them since.

When the country went into lockdown in March most children could not attend school under coronavirus restrictions, prompting fears that some could “fall through the cracks”.

In order to support pupils the Government developed a centrally-funded national voucher scheme, whereby families received a voucher or gift card worth £15 to spend in major retailers.

Mr Rashford successfully lobbied ministers to extend the provision over the summer months, at a cost of around £20 million for every week of the school holiday.

He received an MBE for his activism and has recently inspired hundreds of restaurants and takeaways to provide free school meals over the half-term break in lieu of Government support.

The row has stoked significant anger and has been compared by some to Margaret Thatcher’s decision in 1971 to stop the provision of milk for junior school pupils.

Edward Short, then Labour education spokesman, said scrapping milk was “the meanest and most unworthy thing” he had seen in 20 years.

It earned Mrs Thatcher the nickname “Milk Snatcher”, and haunted her throughout her career. In 1985 she was even refused an honorary degree from Oxford University because of her education cuts.

Anything else I need to know?

So what will the Government do to address the issue?

Ministers are reluctant to perform another screeching U-turn but understand the need to act.

It looks as if a compromise is on the cards, with the Government expected to provide councils with extra money for holiday clubs.

The Prime Minister is studying a proposal by Henry Dimbleby, the Government’s food tsar, for the clubs to be extended so children can be given at least one free meal per day outside term time.

The Government could combine the scheme with extra study time for children still catching up after schools were closed in the spring, enabling ministers to argue that it was a planned policy rather than a U-turn.

Signalling his intention to act, the Prime Minister insisted: “We don’t want to see children going hungry this winter, this Christmas, certainly not as a result of any inattention by this Government – and you are not going to see that.”

The Refresher take

It was Michael Gove’s columnist wife Sarah Vine who perhaps put it most succinctly.

“Short of drowning a basket of puppies live on air,” she wrote of the Government’s handling of the free school meals debacle, “I can’t think of a worse communications fail.”

A Government which has splurged hundreds of billions this year had seemed ready to die on a hill for the sake of spending £20 million a week extra on feeding needy children during a pandemic.

Little wonder voters have largely sided with an England footballer, a humble man considering his money-drenched profession, who keenly remembers his own days going hungry as a boy.

If they don’t want to be damned as the Nasty Party for another generation, the Tories should surely consider changing course as deftly as possible.

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