From the moment that the decision was taken to extend school vouchers to cover the Easter break – they were also issued during the May half-term – it was inevitable that pressure would build to stretch them into the summer holidays too.
What Downing Street could not have foreseen was that it would be supercharged by a Premier League footballer with 2.8 million followers on Twitter. And who has no record of public activism or alignment.
Think the Gurkhas and Joanna Lumley in 2009 (remember how Gordon Brown was forced to climb down over their rights of abode in Britain). But with the speed and projection that comes with the social media of 2020.
We are darkly amused to see that Dominic Cummings is being slated by Conservative MPs for failing to spot the zooming problem in advance.
For this confirms that the Prime Minister’s special adviser has achieved the status among them of a kind of folk demon – a bit like the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, with Barnard Castle as his very own Schloss Neuschwanstein.
Actually, nipping this kind of political problem in the bud is, strictly speaking, the responsibility of the Ministers involved – plus that of the Political Secretary, Ben Gascoigne. And in this case, there were rather a lot of Ministers, since Education, Work and Pensions and DEFRA all have schemes to support children in need.
The whips seem to have got on to the issue swiftly enough. Which takes us to three lessons from the climbdown. The first was set out by Mark Wallace on Twitter yesterday. It is that Conservative backbenchers will duck defending the Government’s position when it’s under pressure.
This isn’t new in itself. Remember the Coalition’s early U-turn on the privatisation of forests – made after backbenchers had loyally written to constituents with versions of the official Policy Research Unit letter defending the plan.
Why go over the top for Number Ten, to use a figure of speech still deployed by older Tory MPs, if the officer class won’t follow? The Parliamentary Party will now be more reluctant than ever to support Downing Street when it’s under siege – which raises the chances of further retreats.
The second was floated on this site last week. It is that the Conservative Parliamentary Party is falling out of the habit of saying No. In the case of the new intake, it’s one that hasn’t been acquired. This is because of the unique circumstances of this Parliament, even before mulling the effects of Covid-19.
Tory MPs were elected on December 12 to help Boris Johnson deliver Brexit, which they have duly done, and to support what he sometimes calls “boosterism” – in other words, spending on 50,000 more nurses; 50 million more GP appointments; 20,000 more police, and “millions more invested every week”.
In other words, they are not in the psychological space that previous intakes inhabited in 1979 or 2010 over public spending control. If the likes of Robert Halfon and Tracey Crouch threaten to vote with Labour, as they did over school vouchers yesterday, the Government’s majority of 80 suddenly starts to look a lot smaller.
We are told that extending the scheme will cost “only” – the word was in widespread circulation yesterday – £120 million. Yes, that’s relatively small beer in terms of Government spending. But £120 million here, £120 million there: the sums quickly start to add up, as we’re sure Rishi Sunak will tell anyone who’s ready to listen.
This site hopes that yesterday’s flurry doesn’t presage a coming problem. There is a chance that it won’t, at least for a while – if the Government, as it should, cuts taxes, reduces regulation, boosts infrastructure, lets borrowing take the strain, and gives Britain the chance to try and grow its way out of the devastating effects of the Coronavirus.
That response might work. But it might not. In which case tax rises and spending reductions will kick in sooner rather than later.
At such a point, Tory MPs will have no alternative but to learn again how to Just Say No, as many of them did under David Cameron and a few did under Margaret Thatcher. And as they will all have to sooner or later anyway.
In the meantime, Downing Street will have to look again at its early warning system – knowing only too well that Cummings isn’t really part of it.
In the age of social media, government is always likely to be more ponderous-footed than campaigners who know what they’re doing. (It’s worth noting that on school vouchers Rashford was everywhere and Labour nowhere.)
So there will always be crises and ambushes: always have been, always will be. In the last resort, there is no substitute for heavyweight Cabinet Ministers that Number Ten listens to carefully. That’s a matter for the summer reshuffle that the Prime Minister is mulling.