Johnson faces growing Tory revolt over free school meals

By Gavin Cordon, PA Whitehall Editor
·4-min read

Boris Johnson is struggling to contain a growing Tory backbench rebellion as ministers continue to resist demands for a U-turn on free school meals.

A series of senior Conservatives have warned they could vote against the Government if there is fresh Commons division on extending free meals in England during the school holidays.

With public support for the campaign spearheaded by footballer Marcus Rashford continuing to grow, one senior Tory said the Government had “misunderstood” the mood of the nation.

The England and Manchester United striker – whose petition has gathered more than 800,000 signatures – has publicised a string of councils and businesses which are stepping in to provide free food to those in need during the pandemic.

Sir Keir Starmer confirmed Labour would force another vote on the issue if ministers did not relent in time for the Christmas holidays.

Despite the growing pressure, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis – who was sent out to the TV studios to defend the Government’s position – insisted ministers were providing support to families struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think we’ve got the package in place that means people have got the support they need during school holidays,” he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show.

However there was incredulity among some Conservatives that the Government was continuing to hold out when extending free meals during this week’s half-term break would have cost as little as £20 million.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, chairman of the Commons Liaison Committee of senior MPs, told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme: “I think we have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here.

“The public want to see the Government taking a national lead on this. I think the Government will probably have to think again on that, particularly if there’s going to be more votes in the House of Commons.”

Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood said he regretted voting with the Government last week and that extending free school meals offered a “practical vehicle” for providing support to families.

“If there is popularity here to use, it would be churlish not to consider and I do hope that that’s where we’ll end up,” he told Times Radio.

Another former minister, Tim Loughton, said it had been a “mistake” not to continue with free meals during the holidays following the summer and that he was prepared to vote against the Government if there was another vote.

“Free school meals is just one of those totemic things – it is like the NHS, it can do no wrong,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend.

“For all the hassle this has caused, taking away from the really good measures the Government has taken across the board, I just don’t think it was worth the argument. I think it was just politically a mistake.”

The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, suggested the continued wrangling was like something out of the pages of Charles Dickens.

“To have a debate about whether we should make sure that hungry and vulnerable children have enough to eat is something that is strikingly similar to something we’d expect to see in chapters of Oliver Twist – a novel published in the 19th century,” she told Sophy Ridge On Sunday.

The Government comfortably defeated last week’s Labour motion calling for the extension of free meals during the holidays until Easter 2021 with a Commons majority of more than 60, with just five Tory MPs breaking ranks to vote with the opposition.

However, having already been forced to make one U-turn on the issue over the summer as a result of Rashford’s campaigning, ministers will be concerned at the prospect of another revolt when MPs return to Westminster following this week’s half-term recess.

Mr Lewis insisted the Government had the “right position”, increasing Universal Credit and providing £63 million to local authorities to help people in their communities at a time of hardship.

“I know this is a very emotive issue. It is a sensitive issue. It is something that affects families in my constituency as well as round the country,” he said.

“What we are looking to do is ensure that we deal with child poverty at the core, putting the structure in place that means even in school holidays children can get access to the food that they need.”