Mon 21 June 2021

Boris Johnson has ignored ample guidance from Conservative Party history in resisting calls for an extension of free school meals, explains Tom Wilson

In 1989, then Health Secretary Ken Clarke put forward plans to end the provision of free milk to children in day care. Margaret Thatcher, already burned by her experience pushing through legislation to remove free milk for children over the age of 7 under Edward Heath’s Government two decades earlier, blocked the proposals.

She wrote: “This will cause a terrible row – all for £4 million. I know – I went through it 19 years ago. Any scheme for saving £400 million or more I will look at. But not £4 million.”

Fast forward to 2020, and Boris Johnson’s stubborn attempt not to extend free school meals into the half term holidays shows he hasn’t learnt the same lesson.

The extension of free school meals over the two week holidays to ensure the poorest children don’t go hungry at home while sheltering from COVID-19 would only cost an estimated £20 million. This is pocket money compared to the economic packages that drove Chancellor Rishi Sunak to become the most popular politician in Westminster earlier in the year; or the amount of money wasted on defunct tracing apps or subsidised meals out.

At the start of the year, the north – alongside the rest of the country – was captured in a spirit of unity, a national mission, that helped to fuel the Prime Minister’s sky-high approval ratings.

But Dominic Cummings’ infamous trip to Barnard Castle – only 15 miles from Darlington; a town with many economic and family links to locals – and Boris Johnson’s ferocious defence of his adviser helped to shatter the goodwill of the north east and the nation at large. Six months and several bungled decisions later, and the mood in the north was ripe for revolt.

Red Wall Rebellion

In northern seats the Tories picked up at last year’s general election, there has been widespread bafflement and fury at the opposition of local Conservative MPs to the free school meals campaign. If you ask northern voters whether vulnerable kids should be supported through half term to ensure they can eat well, you’re likely to receive a quizzical look in response. When COVID-19 has been hitting families hard and the cost is a measly £20 million, why does the question even need to be asked?

In Darlington, whose new Conservative MP Peter Gibson voted against the plans, a teddy bear protest caught local headlines this weekend as the front steps of his constituency office were adorned with children’s toys and empty plates.

The post on Gibson’s Facebook page, explaining his decision to vote against extending free school meals, garnered so many negative comments that he deleted it, only to attract three times as many negative comments on the follow-up and even more on almost everything he has posted since. Around the corner from his office, South Durham Conservative HQ found itself graffitied with “Feed the Bairns”.

At the start of the pandemic, Johnson had an opportunity to use his term to solidify Conservative inroads into Labour northern heartlands. But the row over free school meals is pulling open the same rift that saw the Conservatives out of power in much of the north east for three decades.

Unlike the Government, Labour has not missed the opportunity. Andy Burnham’s impassioned press conferences, appealing for central government to support the people of Greater Manchester, were a masterclass in politics, and are likely to become the model for local politicians across the north threatened by further restrictions.

The campaign to extend free school meals has become symbolic of a familiar political divide between Conservative treasuries and northern voters, epitomising rifts over poverty, inequality, and government aloofness.

As winter approaches and Johnson’s COVID-incompetence is further exposed, the row threatens to revitalise Labour at the time it most needed it.

In many ways it is Boris Johnson’s biggest successes that threatens his northern demise. His success winning voters to his ‘let’s spend £350 million a-week on the NHS’ Brexit messaging helped to kill any public desire for fiscal conservatism. And local Conservative victories, chipping into the so-called ‘Red Wall’ over the last few years, means there are no longer as many Labour councils to shift blame for cuts.

It is the echoes of ‘Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’ that carries such danger to the Conservatives in the north. Though many voters here last year were willing to break decades-long voting records to put an end to the Brexit debate and prevent Jeremy Corbyn entering Downing Street, there is if anything even less patience now for a non-interventionist conservative mindset.

And as Margaret Thatcher learned the hard way, there is often nothing so toxic to voters as a Government seemingly unwilling to support its vulnerable children.

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