When Theresa May was Prime Minister, Conservative MPs stopped voting, for a time, against Opposition Day motions. This had two upsides. First, they were no longer assailed in their constituencies for trooping through the lobbies against motions that could be read to be innocuous. Second – and even more to the point – one can’t lose a vote if one doesn’t vote at all.
The downside of not opposing those motions was that, once they passed and the Government then ignored them, Ministers were open to the charge of holding the will of Parliament in contempt. In any event, Labour then unearthed a device that the Government couldn’t bypass – the Humble Address.
We mention this to-and-fro from the last Parliament in the wake of a vote in this one. Tory MPs are raging about being whipped to vote against last week’s Opposition Day motion on free school meals – especially those newly-elected last year. They feel that the Whips’ instruction has made them targets in their seats.
Angela Rayner’s disgusting cry of “scum” may be part of the reason: over 100 Conservative MPs say that they and their staff have been the targets of abuse and threats. Some Labour MPs have form in this way: remember John McDonnell’s notorious remark about lynching Esther McVey.
We believe that Tory MPs can’t simply run away from Opposition motions. But we also feel that those unhappy backbenchers have a point. For the simple truth is that Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and the departmental ministers concerned could scarcely be handling this issue worse were they trying.
One can grasp the scale of the problem by pondering the arguments that Conservative MPs have been deploying against making free school meals available during the Christmas holidays. The problem is not that there are none. It is that there are too many.
On the one hand, it was said last week that the taxpayer can’t afford it. It’s true that we are losing a sense of what the Treasury can afford as the Coronavirus bills pile up. But if the Government can afford Eat Out to Help Out, why can’t it afford Feed Kids to Help Out?
On the other, it was also said that the Government is spending millions on feeding poorer children. True again. But the money is divided up between a mass of programmes – support to local authorities, the Universal Credit uplift, the holiday activities and food programme, Fareshare, Magic Breakfast, and more. That’s a mouthful to communicate.
Conservative MPs point out that the last Labour Government didn’t make free school meals available during the holiday period. Correct: but Gordon Brown’s failed administration is beginning to become a bit of a distant memory. They say that parents should be responsible for feeding their children, not the state.
Quite so – up to a point. But if the principle were extended to its logical conclusion, there would be no free school meals at all. What about sudden unemployment after furlough, to strike a timely note? Or disability? And what about state policy that frustrates families – complex childcare schemes, high energy bills, food taxes?
When a Tory MPs can claim that vouchers for meals are being spent on crack dens and brothels, without being able to produce hard evidence, one can hear the bottom of the barrel being noisily scraped. If vouchers are such a bad idea, why did the Government make them available over the summer holidays in the first place?
There is a hint of the Thatcher era about what is happening now. Some will say that she won three elections, and the moral of those victories is: ignore the protesters. But there is a new dimension – even if you don’t believe that the loss of reputation for compassion came back to haunt the Party once it lost its reputation for competence.
It is that while Labour MPs and the hard left are one thing, local businesses, charities and football clubs are quite another. All these, and more, are queuing up to offer help to disadvantaged children. Do you warm to the idea of the Big Society? Well, here it is in action – with the Conservative Party on the wrong side of it.
Reports today suggest that Downing Street knows that it has dug itself into a hole, and must now start to dig itself out. That would be best attempted by finding a plan that’s better than Labour’s (or Marcus Rashford’s) communicating it, implementing it – and then campaigning for it.
Fortunately, there is one to hand. If you think about it, schools are not the right venue for delivering help to poorer children during the holidays – for the obvious reason that, by definition, they are then closed. And the exceptional circumstances of the spring lockdown are now, we all hope, behind us.
Nor do vouchers guarantee “healthy, tasty and nutritious food and drink”, to quote from Government guidelines – which, in the case of food, is better delivered hot. These are best provided in a formal setting. Which is precisely the aim of the Holiday Activities and Food Programme which we mentioned earlier.
This is a £9 million programme in its second year of pilots. This summer, it supported up to 50,000 disadvantaged children across 17 local authority areas at a cost of some £9 million – providing at least four weeks of free activities and healthy food during July and August 2020.
The speech of last week’s debate came from Paul Maynard, MP for Blackpool North and Clevelys (Blackpool itself, by the way, has eight of the ten most deprived areas in England). “My view is that we need a national and universal summer holiday activity and food support stream to deal with the trials that have occurred,” he said.
Maynard is not alone in understanding the issues: see Alan Mak’s work, for example, on Magic Breakfast. But he was right to suggest that the pilots have been too slow. As he said, the issue “is the ultimate example in politics of where something must be done. That is very different from saying that anything should be done”.
Exactly so, and two different groups of people ought to read his speech with special care. The first are Ministers, the Downing Street apparatus, the Treasury – and a handful of backbenchers. There is no more matter more primal than food – and getting fed, especially if one is going hungry.
This debacle is a fearful warning to Boris Johnson, Downing Street, the Government and CCHQ: in all things, let alone any matter so emotive, one needs a policy, a message – and the capacity to campaign on it. In each of these areas, they have been found wanting.
They will have to raise their game on continuing the Universal Credit uplift, and responding to the second part of Henry Dimbleby’s report on food strategy. Why didn’t they, in this case? Perhaps because, amidst all the focus on the Just About Managings, they are missing a point: social justice matters in the former Red Wall, too.
The second group of people concerned are the Rashford campaigners. Some Tories complain about the footballer. We aren’t joining them. After all, if it wasn’t for him, we might well not be writing this morning about the issues he has highlighted.
But he should surely see that vouchers, dispersed to parents in a mass of homes, are not a substitute for nutritious meals, delivered to children who are gathered together in a formal setting – just as in term-time. If Ministers offer such a programme on a bigger scale, he should jump at the chance to embrace it.