Free school meals row sees Red Wall MPs report torrent of abuse, amid calls for Boris Johnson to ‘sit down’ with Marcus Rashford

Edward Malnick
·2-min read
Paul Bristow, the MP for Peterborough - Joe Giddens / PA 
Paul Bristow, the MP for Peterborough - Joe Giddens / PA

Northern Tory MPs have rounded on ministers over the torrent of abuse received by many Conservatives over the government's decision on free school meals at half term.

Members of the 2019 intake of 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 to cover school holidays in the autumn and winter.

One MP who backed the Government against a Labour motion on the issue last week, said the Conservatives' response to the campaign had been "spectacularly bad".

The 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."

Members of the 2019 intake have vented their fury on a WhatsApp group of those elected in December. They have complained that, unlike the approach to moments such as major financial statements, they have not been provided with material such as social media graphics that they could have used to respond to Labour's attacks. 

Marcus Rashford - Fareshare/Mark Waugh 
Marcus Rashford - Fareshare/Mark Waugh

Several privately blamed Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, for failing to act ahead of last week's vote. Many believe the Conservatives have been misrepresented to suggest that they want to end free school meals altogether.

Paul Bristow, the MP for Peterborough, said he had been on the receiving end of abuse that included "comments about my children and threats to turn up at my home."

Labour has been campaigning for ministers to extend the provision of free school meals to half term, after the Government provided vouchers to hundreds of thousands of children over the summer, following pressure from cross-party MPs and Marcus Rashford, the footballer.

The Government has said enough support was already available for families facing hardship. The Conservatives voted against a Labour motion last week, with a handful of Tory MPs rebelling. Yesterday Tobias Ellwood, the former defence minister, signalled that he too now backed further support over school holidays.

George Freeman and Simon Hoare, two other senior Tories, praised an article by Robert Halfon, the chairman of the Commons education committee, which backed the temporary extension of free school meals over school holidays.

Amid mounting signs of Tory dissent, last night Labour threatened a new Commons vote on the issue if the Government failed to change its policy before Parliament's Christmas recess.

Rashford said on Saturday night after playing for Manchester United: "Day job has well and truly worn me out.

"To the media, thank you for shining a light on our real heroes today, they deserve every bit of page space."

Meanwhile, Selaine Saxby, the MP for North Devon, faced criticism for telling businesses offering free food to children that she hoped they "will not be seeking any further government support.”