25 October 2020

Weekly briefing: Making a meal of it


Not content with terrifying Premier League defences, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford now has the Government on the back foot. The return of his free school meals campaign has once more captured the public imagination and generated a slew of negative headlines for Boris Johnson.

Into this week’s melee rode Labour with an Opposition Day motion, safe in the knowledge the Government would vote against it and provoke a flurry of ludicrous ‘Tories want to starve kids!’ reactions.

It’s not just the opposition who are restive though. Tory MPs such as Tim Loughton and Tobias Ellwood have dissented, while Caroline Ansell resigned from her government role after voting with Labour. Some Conservative-led councils – including Boris Johnson’s own Hillingdon – have decided to run their own food voucher schemes (albeit with money provided by central government).

How have things come to this? Several explanations suggest themselves.

One is a genuine belief that there are limits to the state’s role, and that free school meals should be confined to, well, school. Others have made the point that there are better, more targeted ways to help the needy than a blanket system.

Both arguments have merit and will certainly appeal to many voters – not all of them dyed-in-the-wool Tories, by the way – but they don’t really tally with the Government’s approach to this issue so far. Not only did they offer food vouchers in the Easter and summer holidays, but they made Rashford an MBE for his efforts.

Nor is cost the central issue. Compared to the sums doled out on furlough, extra health spending and the faltering test-and-trace system, a few weeks of food vouchers barely registers.

However, it may be that – as suggested by Alan Lockey on CapX this week – Rishi Sunak has decided it’s time to set down a marker, to roll the pitch for a less spendthrift future where the Treasury won’t simply wave through every spending request.

Incidentally, if he does want to cut spending, Sunak could start by scrapping universal FSM for primary school children, the sort of handout that turns the welfare state from a safety net for the needy into a bouncy castle for the already comfortable. A new report from our parent organisation, the Centre for Policy Studies, also has a raft of sensible suggestions to save tens of billions without hiking taxes or cutting services.

More than anything, the way the FSM issue has been handled looks like a problem of communication and anticipation, the result not of deliberate cruelty or conspiracy, but of trying to fight multiple urgent battles at the same time.

On communication, the Government could have been much more assiduous about the major steps it has already taken, particularly the £20 a week Universal Credit top-up and extra no-strings funding for councils – hardly the policies of a government determined to crush the poor.

As for anticipation, it wouldn’t have taken Mystic Meg to have foreseen another campaign on this issue around half-term or the Christmas holidays. The Tory mayor of the West Midlands, Andy Street, has a point when he complains of “last minute” decision-making, which makes the Government look like it’s being buffeted by events instead of directing them.

It’s this impression of incoherence, rather than the charge of heartlessness, that most risks damaging Boris Johnson. After all, Labour has spent its entire existence claiming the Tories are evil so-and-sos content to see the poor suffer, and it’s not an approach that has reaped particularly impressive electoral dividends.

Voters generally pick the Tories because they trust them to take difficult decisions and get the job done. Lose that advantage, and they really will have scored an own-goal.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX.