Updated: Jun 20, 2020
Why is the so-called people’s government so terrible at reading its people?
Boris Johnson’s government were forced to make yet another dramatic policy U-turn yesterday, this time on the ‘COVID summer school fund’. A stunning campaign fronted by 22-year-old England footballer Marcus Rashford, forced the climb down as the prospect of a Conservative backbench revolt loomed in a Commons vote.
Rashford had written a public letter to Boris Johnson, urging him to reconsider repealing the food vouchers that are given out as an alternative to free school meals during lockdown. Despite the Department of Education stating that it would not reverse its decision, Rashford did not give up. Early on Tuesday morning, Rashford tweeted a powerful thread of messages using the #maketheUturn tag to apply pressure on the government. This was ahead of the commons motion later in the day on the matter. The pressure worked, with the government U-turning on the policy one hour before the vote was due to be held.
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The proposed reversal of the policy is a stunning oversight by the Tories, who have misjudged the public mood so horridly in this instance. Especially considering 18 years ago, the then Party Chairwoman Theresa May, warned the Conservatives they were still being viewed as the ‘nasty party’. When you think of the effort, they have endured to rebrand themselves in the following decades, The people’s party? The party of workers? The party of the NHS? This callous move to stop food vouchers to the vulnerable in a global pandemic make them seem more like the party of bare cupboards.
But how did it get to this point?
In the wider context of the government’s COVID response, this is unfortunately another misjudgement in a whole catalogue of cockups, and another controversy which could easily have been avoided. This is a scheme which would cost £120 million to feed 1.3 million children, a drop in the ocean compared to government expenditure, and the estimated £14 billion monthly furlough bill. And, it would effectively ensure that the most vulnerable children in our society will receive £15 per week to put towards their food.
It was a move which the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales saw as a no-brainer. However, there was no such common-sense evident between Boris Johnson and Education Secretary Gavin Williamson in Westminster.
But this is just the latest in a series of policy U-turns which are beginning to characterise this government's response to the crisis. At the beginning of lockdown, after Boris Johnson had recovered from COVID, and had come out to publicly thank and name the immigrant nurses who helped to save his life, he then came out and announced a one-off tax on all migrants using the NHS, initially refusing to exempt migrants who came over to work in the NHS from paying it. This was a public slapping in the face to the very people who saved his life. Following the widespread outrage, they dropped the policy. But why did they ever think it was a good idea in the first place?
The Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has also come under increased scrutiny, and this most recent episode is just the latest in a series characterised by incompetence. He failed to get laptops for children which he promised head teachers for lockdown but still haven’t arrived. The existing system of free meal tokens has been already been described as rife with problems.
Then he set a date of June 1st for the original opening of primary schools, without proper consultation with schools or unions. In this battle, they received relatively light resistance from unions and had quite a lot of press backing. However, in the end they completely caved; abandoning plans for all primary schools to reopen almost overnight. In politics, you must sometimes make unpopular decisions, but the Tories seem utterly unwilling to stick to their guns for fear of retaliation.
It is often easy to forget that they have an 80-seat majority, the biggest Conservative majority since 1987. However, they seem too scared to use it. In this case it’s a relief that they didn’t, but U-turns do not look good to an electorate.
This is a party which is desperate to be liked. The problem is that it does not know how. Following their resounding election victory in 2019, they have a truly diverse support base. However, satisfying the needs of their different pockets of supporters creates an enormous policy challenge, and one they are yet to find a comprehensive solution for.
The issue of our country’s schools during lockdown has been a perpetual thorn in the side of the government, as they have failed to act proactively to get children back to school. Even though it is now deemed safe enough to go to the zoo, theme parks, restaurants, shops, etc… By the time most children return in September, they will have had six months out of the classroom.
As a result, vulnerable children face the prospect of falling behind both academically and physically as a result of this government’s shortcomings.
According to a survey of teachers during May, 90% of teachers say that pupils are doing less or much less work than they would be doing at this time of the year. And, at least a fifth of children are doing no work or less than an hour every day.
And the problem is disproportionately effecting schools with the highest rate of students eligible for free meals. There is a clear digital-disparity, effecting children from low-income backgrounds which means they are less well-equipped for studying at home. Many of these may come from households which voted Tory for the first time, and will be expecting some return on their investment.
Johnson himself called the situation a “massive catch-up operation” and if schools do go back in September as planned, around 9 million children will have missed 6 months of schooling. For 15% of children, that would have meant missing out on free school meals, which thanks to Rashford’s campaign, will no longer be the case.
10 vs 10
Despite the negative public perception that footballers often attract, the work of Marcus Rashford during lockdown has been inspirational. He has started a charity that has raised around £20 million to feed children in poverty, partnered a movement to counter homelessness, learnt sign-language to judge a poetry competition at a deaf school, and fronted a movement to prevent 1.3 million children going hungry over the summer. Few politicians will ever affect as many people’s life in a positive way as much as Rashford has done in the last three months.
In contrast, it has been a famously terrible day for this government, even by the poor standards they have recently set. Their misery seemed utterly compounded when, work and pensions secretary Theresa Coffey tweeted a shoo-in for read-the-room tweet of the year. Responding to a thread of four tweets from Marcus Rashford, where he powerfully made his case for continuation of the scheme (see below), she responded that “water cannot be discontinued”. In doing so she perfectly illustrated how her government have completely missed the point and caused every Conservative press officer to collectively tear their hair out.
However, this is not simply a story of Manchester United’s no. 10 versus Downing Street’s. This victory is for 1.3 million children who now will not have to go without.
If the government had acted as they had with furlough, taking the credit for the initial success of the scheme but identifying the need for it to be extended; this would be a success that the Conservative’s could have shared with their electorate. Boris could’ve even put it on the side of a bus. Now it serves as a bitter reminder that the so-called people’s government could, itself, benefit from going back to school and learning how to read what its people want.