When in a gap, it helps to cease digging. This government has now so categorically misplaced the argument over extending free school meals by means of the holidays that the solely manner of escaping with any dignity is to give in. When each different small cafe proprietor in England appears to be offering free sandwiches to children over half-term, even whereas struggling to maintain their very own companies afloat in a pandemic, then you need to know you’ve misplaced. When lifelong Conservative voters, whose church buildings make common collections for the meals financial institution, are dismayed, then you definately’ve misplaced. When your individual MPs are sending textual content messages resembling the one I acquired, worrying that free school meals might change into this government’s ballot tax – nicely, eventually a U-turn turns into inevitable.
They could wish to name it one thing completely different, gown it up to not appear like a retreat. But the cupboard can’t hold twisting themselves into the form of knots Matt Hancock did on Monday morning, telling Radio 4’s Today programme that on the one hand he agrees with the footballer Marcus Rashford’s marketing campaign to cease youngsters going hungry, however on the different hand – no, they received’t truly do what Rashford desires. The prime minister’s promise a number of hours later that no baby would go hungry at Christmas, even when he couldn’t truly clarify how that might be assured, suggests he now realises the place isn’t sustainable. The solely thriller is why it took so lengthy.
One reply is the sheer pig-headedness of a No 10 operation that might fairly threat Manchester revolting towards lockdown guidelines in the center of a pandemic than be seen to provide an inch to its mayor, Andy Burnham, and which nonetheless thinks the solely path to a Brexit deal is threatening to storm off with out one. The solely factor it is aware of is battle, aggressively returning fireplace with fireplace; it prides itself on by no means being seen to again down, even when that does generally imply chopping off its personal nostril to spite its face. The Downing Street comms mantra is that if it simply toughs issues out for lengthy sufficient, as it did over Dominic Cummings’ now infamous street journey to Barnard Castle, the media storm will move.
But what it seemingly failed to note is that this time the enemy isn’t the media and even the Labour social gathering, which pushed the concern to a vote in parliament. This time Downing Street is up towards a footballer quickly approaching the standing of nationwide treasure, and plenty of small needy youngsters. Boris Johnson has reportedly now made contact with Rashford, however a wiser, much less pugnacious operation would have ensured they’d talked weeks in the past, simply as it could have despatched Johnson to Manchester in individual to clarify to the metropolis why he wished to place it into tier 3 towards its leaders’ needs, fairly than firing potshots from London in a manner that merely infected previous tensions between north and south.
This isn’t simply about No 10, nevertheless. Rishi Sunak has been mysteriously absent all through the free school meals furore, fuelling hypothesis that for as soon as this wasn’t a case of the Treasury refusing to cough up however of Downing Street making a political choice to not give up. In reality, the Treasury could have been extra preoccupied with yet one more course correction, in the form of the multibillion-pound package of extra support for employers it unveiled final week, after widespread complaints that its authentic job help scheme wasn’t truly sufficient to avoid wasting jobs as soon as furlough ends. To the Treasury, specializing in this arguably is sensible; saving jobs ought to in flip cease extra youngsters falling into poverty in future. But it’s complicated for voters, who can’t reconcile all these soothing phrases about the government placing its arms round the nation with tales of fogeys skipping meals so their youngsters can eat. If there’s cash to bail out enterprise, why not for a number of lunchboxes over half-term?
One rationalization, maybe, for the failure to have interaction correctly with the argument is that this government is quietly apprehensive about the place it’d lead. It’s a comparatively brief step from giving out free meals vouchers in a disaster to creating that the norm even after the pandemic, to asking some deeply awkward questions about why so many households want this assist in the first place, even in lots of instances once they’re working. Might it have one thing to do with the proven fact that this nation now has amongst the lowest benefits in Europe, alongside comparatively excessive housing prices and years of stagnating wages?
But if that’s the motive they’re shamefully ducking this argument, the Tories have badly miscalculated. Johnson must do the proper factor on free school meals, and do it shortly. But he must also realise that it received’t be the final such dilemma he faces, as the pandemic pushes extra households into poverty. If, as the Tories hold saying, free meals is only a “sticking plaster” answer, then eventually folks will rightly count on to see a remedy.
• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist