Following the Government’s latest capitulation to Marcus Rashford on the question of school meals – detailed in the weekend’s papers – the big question is surely what could possibly have delayed it for so long?
When Boris Johnson initially held firm again extending free school meals through the holidays, the expectation was that he must have some alternative in mind. But none was announced. Nor has one apparently been found in the month since this row broke out.
Thus we find the Prime Minister timing his call to Rashford for a moment when the news cycle is largely eclipsed by the result of the US presidential election (which is understandable, if not dignified), and the Government committing to an extra £170 million in spending for which it will get no credit whatsoever.
Yet whilst this latest surrender might have eased the immediate political pressure, it seems likely that it will store up future trouble for Johnson – not least because it is now more likely that Rashford, who insists that there is “much more to do”, will keep coming back. As Kipling famously wrote, once you have paid a danegeld – let alone paid it twice – you are seldom free of the Dane.
And by appearing to concede to the logic of the Government’s opponents, who branded it ‘Dickensian’, this makes all the arguments adduced in defence of Johnson’s approach look like they were made in bad faith.
But the Prime Minister has also burned the fingers of Tory MPs who rode out to defend the Government line on this. This mirrors David Cameron’s great u-turn over forestry sell-offs, which Paul Goodman raised with Jacob Rees-Mogg in the latest Moggcast (during which the Leader of the House insisted no reversal was in the offing).
That such behaviour has long-term consequences can be seen in who stepped up to defend Johnson’s position in the Commons debate on free school meals last month. Of the seven MPs whose contributions we quoted in our piece, five were of the 2019 intake. Older, and in the event perhaps wiser, heads gave the event a wide berth. For a Government which is already having trouble with a restive caucus, pulling the rug out from under the new intake will teach them unhelpful lessons. And for a Prime Minister short on ideological allies, embarrassing the group of MPs whom he helped elect will only help to thin the ranks of his loyalists.
Contrary to some cynical caricatures, politicians are quite often willing to risk public anger and take, or defend, unpopular decisions. But there are some important conditions. The first is the belief that the policy in question is a necessary step towards a worthwhile goal. The second is trust that their officers won’t abandon them in a foxhole when the going gets tough.
By folding in the manner he has, Johnson fails both tests. He’s not only let his troops hand their opponents ammunition which will be thrown back in their faces until the next election, but also sent a strong signal that there is no plan behind it all. The month delay in u-turning wasn’t to buy time for anything, it was simply indecision. The next time he tries to send ‘Boris’s Boys and Girls‘ over the top, he may find them much less willing.