“He’s got his culture war, alright. And we’re on the wrong side.” That grim verdict of one former minister on Boris Johnson’s handling of the free school meals row is shared by many Tory MPs facing the backlash of recent days.
Outfought and outthought by both Marcus Rashford’s razor-sharp social media campaign and Labour’s Commons manoeuvring, Conservative backbenchers are urging Downing Street to finally come up with a solution that kills for good the idea that the government will leave children hungry over Christmas.
As No.10 scrambles to catch up with the public mood, cabinet ministers Brandon Lewis and Matt Hancock have hinted at fresh help for youngsters from poorer backgrounds without necessarily opting for an extension of free meals over holiday periods.
Johnson himself broke cover on Monday to say his ministers would “make sure that we have no children” in England “who go hungry this winter”, without giving any details on how he would achieve that.
But for many Tory MPs who have talked to HuffPost UK, the whole saga has exposed deeper problems including Johnson’s lack of focus, Downing Street’s failing political antennae, the effectiveness of the whips’ office, and Dominic Cummings’ disdain for backbenchers.
Faced with a Labour Party that this weekend edged ahead in the polls, the concern is that No.10 is failing to cope in trying to sort the Covid crisis and deliver a Brexit deal while faced with all the other pressures of being in office.
With looming rebellions over planning reforms and food farming standards post-Brexit that hit the Tory shires, anger at the failures of the so-called NHS Test and Trace programme, rows over the tier 2 and 3 coronavirus restrictions, plus the threat of mass unemployment over winter, the sense of unease is palpable.
Most fundamentally of all, for some MPs the free school meals saga has revealed the internal contradictions in what “Johnsonism” itself really means. Is its priority interventionist spending or is it more about balancing the books and boosting individual responsibility? Does it want to centralise or localise? Is it driven by a macho, take-no-prisoners revolution or a caring conservatism?
While the PM tries to grapple with his party’s political multiple personality disorder, his philosophy of being “pro-cake and pro-eating it” seems particularly ill-suited for a time when many parents worry about putting food on the table.
Rashford’s campaign managed to skilfully turn last week’s Commons defeat into a victory, with his huge social media presence used to promote every single local restaurant, cafe or council that was offering free meals over the October half-term.
I heard a couple of days ago that going in to the debate the feeling was that the British public wouldn’t care about the issue of child hunger a second time around.
Boy did you prove that theory wrong...
— Marcus Rashford MBE (@MarcusRashford) October 26, 2020
It is seen by some Tory MPs as a “genius move” because it highlights exactly the kind of community spirit that lies behind the campaign, while giving mass publicity to each of those involved.
But several backbenchers and even ministers are appalled at the leaden-footed way both the PM and education secretary Gavin Williamson have approached the issue for weeks. “Several of us texted Boris direct, way before the vote. This was predictable and we should have had it nailed knowing half term was coming,” said one MP.
“Even those of us who have campaigned on this issue and abstained as a result are getting abuse. Last week was and still is a disaster and follows just months after the Cummings fiasco. Both handled really badly, both cut through the noise and both won’t be forgotten. Drives me to despair,” said one former minister via text.
I took the line [in the vote], and trusted ministers – and it’s a total clusterfuck. Former minister
One MP said: “I took the line [in the vote], and trusted ministers – and it’s a total clusterfuck. They haven’t got it right, they briefed out wrong and they’ve made fools of us all. We’re all now desperately fighting the flak back in our constituencies. And our councillors are livid because they’re being hung out to dry as well. All this bollocks about £63m – it wasn’t for free school meals.
“It’s one thing to make a mistake, but where has been the firefighting support afterwards – where are the spads [special advisers], where are the PPSs [parliamentary private secretaries], the weekend support? There’s nothing. There’s no sense that CCHQ have stayed up all night crunching the numbers for each area saying: ‘This is how much you get in your area,’ et cetera.”
With Labour vowing to table a new Opposition Day motion demanding free meals voucher funding over the Christmas holiday, several former ministers – Tim Loughton, Tobias Ellwood and Caroline Noakes – have in recent days gone on record to demand change.
We can’t be chucking money at people to Eat Out To Help Out one minute, and then look reluctant to help spend money to prevent child malnutrition. George Freeman
Former science minister and policy chief George Freeman has now added his voice too.
“Unless we can show that the £63m for councils will help low income families with food for children this half-term and Christmas holidays – which I fear we can’t – we would be wise to pre-empt the ‘Cruel Tories Cancelled Christmas’ headlines now and agree a sensible package of targeted FSM [free school meals] for the half term and Christmas holidays,” Freeman told HuffPost UK.
“We can’t be chucking money at people to Eat Out To Help Out one minute, and then look reluctant to help spend money to prevent child malnutrition.”
Several MPs said that one procedural way out of the problem would be to simply “not play Labour’s game” with Opposition Day debates. “There’s lots of anger around among colleagues about why the government allows itself to get caught out by Opposition Debates,” said one. “Numerous colleagues are pressing whips to abandon voting in them altogether.”
A former minister added that under Theresa May the government realised that just staying away from non-binding votes was the best way forward: “I think we should say opposition debates, those are for the opposition to raise issues. And we’re not going to vote on them.
“I mean, if they want to pass a motion saying ‘this House resolves as of Thursday afternoon, that the Tories are all child hating viruses, all those in favour 284 versus nil,’ fine, let ’em. It’s just parliamentary graffiti, we’ve got bigger bigger things to do.”
But many felt that the real problem was a lack of political antennae within the Downing Street operation and a lack of engagement with backbenchers.
Since the government whipped its MPs to oppose Labour’s motion backing Rashford’s plan on Wednesday, the sheer scale of the backlash took some backbenchers by surprise – but others felt it was all too predictable. What none of them foresaw was the lack of support from the centre.
The 30-year-old Mansfield MP Ben Bradley waded into Twitter spats that led him to suggest that school meals vouchers had “effectively” been spent in a crack den and a brothel in the summer in his constituency. His was the only Tory face on TV on Friday night as ministers ducked the issue.
Newly-elected Workington MP Mark Jenkinson said food parcels were “sold or traded for drugs”. Another 2019 intake MP Selaine Saxby tried to apologise after saying: “I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support.”
One former minister said chief whip Mark Spencer had to share the blame too, accusing him of “having naive newbies attacking Labour, FSM [and] poor people and then leaving it to others to [do] pastoral care when they are under severe attack”.
Some of the hardline rhetoric defending the government’s stance carries big risks for the party’s image, according to Manchester University politics professor Rob Ford, whose book Brexitland analyses the demographic changes that helped drive the referendum and Johnson’s rise to power.
He points to a study by the UK in A Changing Europe think tank this summer that found Tory MPs were out of step with their own constituents on the need for higher government spending. “It’s true of Conservative voters in general, but it is particularly true of the Labour-to-Conservative switchers who were so pivotal in the 2019 election,” Ford says.
“Essentially, Labour to Conservative switchers are centre-left on economic ideology. The average Conservative MP emphatically is not, so this row was kind of coming. One of the jobs of leaders is to appeal over the heads of their activists or MPs to the average voter.
“And this episode has shown that if there is not a very clear and firm steer towards the median voter from Johnson and his cabinet, Conservatives will default to a position of ‘we don’t want to spend money, the deficit is massive – and anyway, these people don’t deserve it’. These MPs [like Bradley] are leaping into the vacuum of leadership.”
Pollster Joe Twyman, whose Deltapoll/MailonSunday survey found 71% public support for the Rashford policy, pointed out that nearly twice as many Conservative supporters support it than oppose it.
“This isn’t the first and it’s certainly not going to be the last of the issues in different areas that the government has to deal with in terms of the impact of Covid,” he said. “There is a real danger that a narrative of ‘the nasty party’ can resume.”
Some ministers and MPs are already pointing the finger at education secretary Williamson, whose department is responsible for the free school meals policy. Although some of his allies say his hands are tied by the need to keep spending under control, backers of Rishi Sunak strongly refute any suggestion the chancellor has blocked more money for children.
It is understood that the Department for Education did not put together any spending proposal for the Treasury on extending the meals for half-term. It would have had to consult No.10, too, on any such plan, but has not done so, senior sources said. “The idea that HMT [Her Majesty’s Treasury] have said ‘no’ is fantasy.”
For some, the problem is more deep-rooted. Former special adviser Salma Shah said: “Currently there is an unfortunate deficit of political experience. Most of the cabinet has only been in post for just over a year alongside some very big changes at the top of a fair few significant departments. The result can be quite destabilising for Whitehall at any time, let alone during a pandemic.
“But the issue is wider – the last two close election cycles resulted in a loss of institutional knowledge on the back-benches too. The grandees who could lend their opinion, calm nerves or help set a better direction because they’ve been there and done that is missing, and actually quite an important part of charting a policy course successfully.”
How many people around the cabinet table have been on free school meals? Former adviser
One former Tory insider puts it more bluntly: “How many people around the cabinet table have been on free school meals?” The bigger structural issue in Whitehall seemed to be whether child hunger was a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions, the education department, or Robert Jenrick’s local government department, they added. “No one seems in charge.”
Ironically, Rashford himself has been more politically savvy than any minister. Although he insists he is above party politics, his long-term solutions to child hunger lie in a change of the welfare system, with increased eligibility for school meals for all on Universal Credit, a comprehensive holiday support package, plus a higher cash rate for pregnant mothers in receipt of health eating support.
A former special adviser added that Johnson was struggling to define his political philosophy but had to do so in a crisis. Quoting the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, they said: “‘The crisis is that the old is dying and the new cannot be born.’ We’ve got a lot of baggage. We’ve been having this conversation since Cameron first came in.
“Osborne had the austerity policy but still tried to sort of game the centre ground. He was shifting to the left on things like a living wage, but also still trying to cling to that Tory message about fiscal responsibility and lower welfare. It squeaked us a majority in 2015.
“Osborne and Cameron talked about standing up for shift-workers who left home in the dark hours of the early morning to see the closed blinds of their neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits. You could just about get away with that when we had low unemployment, but not now.”
Unsurprisingly, given his open contempt for many Tory MPs, Johnson’s senior adviser Dominic Cummings gets some blame for the problems now being experienced, even though it remains unclear just what role if any he has played in the school meals issue.
“Any No.10 worth its name would just have a feel for domestic politics. All they’ve got a feel for is the Red Wall/Brexit thermometer. This isn’t just a one off – it’s been a series of cock-ups,” says one former minister, pointing to a string of U-turns.
“Dominic Cummings and Eddie Lister [the PM’s other senior adviser] are completely absent without leave. A lot of us have been warning them that there is no political operation in there. A take-back-control Brexit campaign, it’s not a day to day basis for credible governing.
“Secondly, what the fuck are ministers doing? Those of us who have been ministers know that sometimes you have to put out a difficult topic. You’d better make sure you brief people properly, give them a really strong line. The reason you have ministers who are also elected is they can kind of go ‘yeah, that’s not good enough, that doesn’t really fly’.”
Another ex-minister said: “Everyone is frightened of Cummings. He’s the second most powerful person in the government, but cabinet ministers are not doing anything to challenge him.”
One former special adviser said the explanation was more simple. “People aren’t doing their jobs. Just do the fucking work. Is the prime minister actually doing the hard work you need in that job?”
Several MPs think the responsibility lies with Johnson, not his aides. They think he should have personally got a grip on the issue before last week’s Labour motion and realised Williamson was heading for a fall. More broadly, they think he needs to have a much clearer idea of what his government stands for beyond Brexit.
“Rishi is great for the economy but the big gaping hole is social justice. Are we a social justice government or not? Boris did use the two words for the first time I think as prime minister in his conference speech,” said one former minister. “We don’t talk enough about our successes, like Universal Credit not failing in this crisis.
Levelling up doesn’t mean anything to anyone. I asked two constituents about it recently. One said ‘is it about Nintendo level up games?’ The other said – I kid you not – ‘do you mean the potholes?’ Tory MP
“They need to have a programme for people who are struggling – my constituents, basically. They need to find the right words for it. ‘Levelling up’ doesn’t mean anything to anyone. I asked two constituents about it recently. One said: ‘Is it about Nintendo level up games?’ The other said – I kid you not: ‘Do you mean the potholes?’
“And also what does ‘Build Back Better’ mean? I don’t understand it, so it’s no wonder my voters don’t.”
One veteran shire Tory MP says the PM suffers from a lack of focus and from perhaps the after-effects of his own Covid hospitalisation. “He should have had a longer rest, two or three weeks wasn’t enough, and it shows. I’ve been a minister and once you get back from illness there’s no half-measures, your box fills up,” they said.
“The PM makes a pretence of engaging with MPs but at the first session of the ’22 [1922 Committee] he took no questions and at the second one he allowed a few questions but no one seemed to take the issues up seriously.”
Johnson does have support among those who think he has been too busy with Covid to focus on the school meals problem, and that it should have been sorted out by others. “I absolutely refuse to believe Boris is comfortable with this,” a former minister said. “He is a One Nation Tory and this is not who he is.”
But others are less forgiving, saying his handling of the Andy Burnham cash offer row had “managed to divide the party geographically as well as ideologically”.
“It’s all down to him. People don’t change at 56 and he’s not changed. He is fighting on too many fronts, but worst of all I just don’t think he’s a very good politician. He’s personable and quick thinking but he’s utterly unstrategic,” said a senior backbencher.
“Bizarrely, his government has got two approaches. It either looks a hundred years out in terms of civil service reform and putting people on the moon, or it looks at tomorrow. But it can’t look a week out, or a month out, or a year out from now.”
They’re now getting U-turnphobia and deciding to get macho after the event. It’s ‘we must hold the line’. Well, that’s how armies get defeated – they hold the wrong line Former minister
The military analogy is shared by a former minister. “I think why they haven’t pivoted is that this has happened so many times that they’re now getting U-turnphobia and deciding to get macho after the event. It’s ‘we must hold the line’. Well, that’s how armies get defeated – they hold the wrong line, right?”
One MP added: “This is only a cannonball below the decks, but we are shipping water and the ship is starting to list. It doesn’t matter that you’ve got an 80 majority up on the decks. Once the ship starts to take in water below decks, you’re in real trouble.”
Some think a fresh start can come in the New Year, once a Brexit trade deal has been delivered and after a government reshuffle to promote talent and axe dead wood. The PM’s loyalty to Williamson, who is also accused of failing to prepare for another huge Covid problem – the movement of two million students across the country before Christmas – is seen as baffling.
“Apart from Rishi, Gove and possibly Grant [Shapps] I can’t think of anyone else who is good in the cabinet. He needs to be like Robespierre. The night of the long knives would be a tea party compared to what he’s got to do,” said one MP.
Another disagreed: “I don’t think they will ever get to it. They’ve already got 60 members of parliament who are ex-ministers who know they are not coming back. Why would you add to that number when you’ve got a majority of 80? He’s actually very weak.”
One senior backbencher said: “I think the party needs to be as united as possible with Covid and Brexit all around us. But the comms on everything else we are doing for poorer kids was nowhere to be seen.
“There’s lots of sympathy from BJ and Rishi but very little empathy. I suspect the irony will be that, despite such a large majority, Boris will see more rebellions than ever, post-Brexit deal.”
A former cabinet minister said plans to end the Universal Credit increase next April were another looming issue.
“It seems no one is doing serious horizon scanning,” they said. “The same thing will happen over Universal Credit and the £20 a week rise due to end next spring. Trouble is the longer they leave it, the less political gain. It will become another U-turn story.”
Freeman said the free school meals row should be a wake-up call to the PM. “Only 10 months ago we won a massive election victory based on the PM promising to lead a ‘people’s government’ that was listening and ‘taking back control’ to ‘level up’ for hardworking Brits let down by ‘big bureaucracy’,” he said.
“This week Labour have cleverly out-manoeuvred us to portray us as the out-of-touch ‘Whitehall-knows-best’ machine politicians with no feel for populist grassroots opinion on Covid, on the wrong side of an argument with a northern football hero campaigner on child poverty.
“This is a comms disaster. There’s a pattern here: the No.10 machine is too focused on the Brexit ‘culture war’ and too contemptuous of parliamentary process. It needs to change, or we face electoral annihilation in next year’s key local elections. No.10 needs a political chief of staff with a feel for bread and butter doorstep politics. Fast.”
Ford said a big problem for Johnson was just how former Labour voters in “Blue Wall” seats – where many relied on in-work benefits and on free school meals – were viewing his government more broadly.
“All voters have a tipping point. Many of them cut him a lot of slack over Brexit, but if you lose just 20% of those voters on other issues a lot of those marginal seats would be in doubt without Labour having to lift a finger, even before whatever onslaught Starmer has planned,” he said.
“And of course we are still only one year into a four-year government. There’s every reason to think next year will be tougher than this year on the economic front, unemployment is a lagging indicator at the best of times. We don’t know how long Covid will run, and the slide in the polls has already begun and lots of voters are beginning to ask difficult questions.
“Also, when voters snap, they don’t snap back. Look what happened to the Tories in 1993 after the ERM. They slid and they never came back even three and a half years of economic growth. Once those voters have decided ‘we’re off’, that’s it. You lose them slowly but never get them back once they’re gone.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost UK and has been updated.