Comment: Free meals row shows you misread the public at your peril

It took senior Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin to finally say what many of his beleaguered colleagues have been thinking over the past few days.

Marcus Rashford on a visit to FareShare in Greater Manchester
Marcus Rashford on a visit to FareShare in Greater Manchester

"We have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here," he said, reflecting on Boris Johnson's decision to reject plans to provide free school meals during holidays until next Spring.

Ministers clearly thought last Wednesday's vote would be old news by now, particularly with the Chancellor announcing his latest support for businesses the following day.

Instead an almighty political row has erupted, which may still lead to yet another Government U-turn.

Anyone who thought the issue would fade into the background is guilty of ignoring a couple of rather sizeable factors.

Firstly, it was brought into the public eye by one of the country's most well known footballers, Marcus Rashford, who received an MBE for his successful campaign to provide free school meals over the Summer and – to his great credit – has refused to drop the matter.

Add on to that the fact that we are in the middle of a national crisis, with the economy in a desperate state and many families struggling.

The situation is only going to get worse in the coming months, when in all likelihood tens of thousands of jobs will be lost.

Against such a backdrop, the Government has allowed itself to come across as the big, bad ogre who stands aside while deprived children go hungry over the holidays.

The results have been disastrous for the Conservative Party.

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Tory MPs – who were ordered to vote against the Labour motion – now find themselves characterised as cruel and out of touch.

Many of those who were elected to represent traditional Labour strongholds in December have been bombarded with emails from furious constituents.

Some have received vile abuse and personal threats against them and their families. Constituency offices have been vandalised.

Unsurprisingly, Labour has seized the opportunity to exploit the situation and embark on a propaganda war that as things stand, it is winning at a hack canter.

The issue itself, of course, is far more nuanced than Sir Keir Starmer's party and the Momentum clan claims it to be.

Across the country, there is widespread concern over the eye-watering amount of taxpayers' money that has been hurled at the fight against Covid.

And many people will agree wholeheartedly with the Government's view that it should not be the role of the state to feed children out of term time.

There is also a legitimate argument to be had that in the short term, extra funding given to councils could be used to provide free school meals.

But in the extraordinary circumstances we currently find ourselves in, why reject a scheme that would only cost a tiny fraction of the billions in Covid rescue money the Treasury has already pumped into the economy?

Granted, there was no way that Mr Johnson would order his MPs to support an opposition day motion, which in Parliamentary terms are generally seen as unimportant as they carry no legislative weight.

But he could easily have backed Rashford by agreeing to extend the scheme this half-term, before launching a full review ahead of the Christmas holidays.

Instead, he has adopted a position that appears to fly in the face of all the talk of 'levelling up' and 'blue collar Conservatism'.

In the coming days we will see whether or not the Government decides to stick or twist.

Ministers may want to consider that many children across the country will only be getting fed this week thanks to the generosity of thousands of businesses that have stepped in to provide meals.

They should be primarily concerned about that, but should also be aware that such errors in judgment have a habit of coming back to bite you.

The Prime Minister does not need to look too far into the past to find evidence of the damage that can result from misreading the public mood.

Margaret Thatcher's political career was brought to an end by the poll tax, which triggered large scale riots across the country and a Tory rebellion.

Tony Blair's legacy is forever tainted by the Iraq War, while David Cameron was finished as PM a few months after he called the EU referendum.

Jeremy Corbyn's miserable tenure as Labour leader saw him repeatedly ignore the British public on issues including Brexit and immigration, resulting in rejection at the polls and his subsequent disappearance back into the political wilderness.

The Government knows that this particular row will eventually die down.

But with local and Mayoral elections coming up next year, it represents a loss of political capital that Boris Johnson can barely afford.

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