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Downing Street has been nutmegged by Marcus Rashford: a U-turn is inevitable

George Osborne
George Osborne / Picture: Daniel Hambury
By
27 October 2020
F

ood is poison when it becomes politics. The French Revolution happened when the price of bread hit a record high. The repeal of the Corn Laws brought down a prime minister. Margaret Thatcher became “the milk snatcher”, while Theresa May’s suicidal manifesto included a lethal pledge to abolish free school meals. As Chancellor I found among the toughest questions in interviews were the ones about food banks. I was armed with all the facts: welfare payments already covered food costs; councils had hardship funds; we’d greatly expanded free school meals. All true, but the answers sounded tin-eared when confronted with real stories of hungry families.

When I visited the food bank in my Cheshire constituency it confirmed two contradictory realities. First, the people I met there were receiving the same welfare payments as lots of others who were managing without the food bank. In other words, Whitehall would argue that they didn’t need handouts. Second, however, the people I met were in real need of help. Life had dealt them very hard blows. Many struggled (as so many of us would) to manage very tight budgets. A few had chaotic lives and simply couldn’t cope. It was no good telling them to manage their money better. If the food bank wasn’t there, their children would go hungry. My years at this newspaper, working with the Felix Project and our great reader appeals to help feed hungry Londoners have confirmed that truth about society that no Treasury spreadsheet will ever capture: even with a comprehensive welfare system there are still going to be many families who can’t manage and don’t have enough to eat. The question then is how best to help them. Should the state provide food directly, or should we leave it to charities, businesses and voluntary groups? It’s not straightforward. We wouldn’t want a world where there was no space between the citizen and the state for what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons”, and we today call community. After all, we pass laws and have the police to prevent child cruelty, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t donate to the NSPCC. Where is the line between government and social action?

That brings us to Marcus Rashford, the 22-year-old Manchester United striker who has nutmegged the British state once and looks like he’s about to do it again. Driven by his childhood experience, he skilfully forced the Government to provide vouchers to children on free school meals during the summer holidays — and now he’s pushing for the same for Christmas . So why can’t Downing Street mount a more solid defence? There are sensible reasons why we might not want the state to be providing direct payments for food, but they’re not going to get a hearing in this case — and here’s why. You could argue that universal benefit has been increased and councils have been given hardship funds. But no one hears you when they see the family on TV going hungry, and the Tory councils saying it’s not enough.

Marcus Rashford delivering food last week / PA

You could argue that this is all just a pretext for opponents of the Conservatives to have a go. But Rashford is so self-evidently not one of the usual suspects - indeed this government just gave him an MBE. You could argue that the state shouldn’t issue food vouchers because it undermines the independence of families to decide how they spend the money the state provides; that it creates perverse black markets as voucher schemes have done in America; and that it is the role for charities to help those who fall through the cracks.

Ministers have been made to look like a school yard football team, all running in a panic after the ball

Conservatives have made and won these arguments before. But it was this very government who set the precedent by providing food vouchers for children during the Easter holidays. If they were justified at Easter, and then again in the summer (thanks to Rashford), how can they not be justified at Christmas? You can hardly argue the Covid crisis has gone away. Nor when you spend £500m on helping people eat out at restaurants can you argue there’s no money left. With Tory MPs getting nervy, another government U-turn is inevitable . We’ll see if it comes in the form of food vouchers, new school holiday clubs or as a large bung to councils. This Downing Street team came into office saying they were much smarter than their predecessors, and wouldn’t make the mistake of chasing headlines. That’s a bold claim. But their ministers have been made to look like a school yard football team, all running in a panic after the ball — until a professional came onto the pitch and put it into the back of their net. Marcus Rashford has got this right. The Government needs to realise that it’s game over.