Once again, Marcus Rashford has scored against the government, after Boris Johnson was forced to admit at prime minister’s questions that food parcels being sent to England’s poorest families were “appalling” and “an insult”.
Keir Starmer attacked the prime minister for trying to dodge the blame, pointing out that the stingy-looking packages – pictures of which had been shared by Rashford, and by furious parents, on social media – appeared to reflect government guidance.
But Johnson’s abject apology, which followed a hastily arranged phone call with the footballer, did mark a change of approach from last year.
No 10 had initially sought to brush off Rashford’s calls for free school meals provision to continue throughout the 2020 summer break, before changing its mind and setting up a voucher scheme.
Then in the autumn, the government again resisted a holiday voucher scheme – one backbencher, Brendan Clarke-Smith, even warned against “nationalising children” – before ministers caved in.
This time, the Department for Education had dropped its “food parcel first” guidance by Wednesday afternoon, allowing families to use vouchers if they prefer, once the scheme is set up.
Conservative insiders say the children’s minister, Vicky Ford, was involved in pushing for a swift response on the issue. And Johnson’s language suggested the Downing Street machine has learned a tangle with Rashford only has one outcome.
But some of Johnson’s backbench troops despair that No 10 continues to be outflanked by the footballer – something they see as part of a pattern of flat-footed political management.
On a call with Boris Johnson’s press secretary, Allegra Stratton, on Tuesday, backbench Conservative MPs complained that No 10 remained too slow at rebuttals – and too vulnerable to elephant traps set by Labour.
Throughout the pandemic, Starmer has repeatedly stolen a march on Johnson by pushing for moves the government’s scientific advisers have demanded. In a pattern that has become wearily familiar, Johnson instinctively hits back, before giving way to the inevitable a few days or weeks later.
The clearest recent example was the prime minister’s attack on Starmer on 16 December for wanting to “cancel Christmas”, delivered in a tone of injured indignation, before Johnson announced last-minute changes to the festive mixing rules three days later.
This about-turn, and the more recent one on schools reopening, came more than a month after Stratton’s arrival and the departure of Dominic Cummings and Lee Cain, who were often blamed for Johnson’s pugnacious style.
There have been modest signs in recent weeks that the prime minister is picking fewer fights, and trying to restrain his irrepressible boosterism – urging caution about when the lockdown can be lifted, for example. But it is unclear as yet whether that is the result of a fresh approach to communications or the severity of the current phase of the pandemic. And no amount of fancy political footwork will help if the government is failing the public, in the way a slick campaign such as Rashford’s can relentlessly expose.
Ultimately, the reason the government continues to be caught out over child food poverty is a more fundamental one: the fact that the threadbare social safety net means children are going hungry in the first place.
Once housing costs are taken into account, the incomes of the poorest families were falling even before the pandemic hit. As the Joseph Rowntree Foundation says in its annual report on poverty on Wednesday, the squeeze on incomes was happening predominantly as the result of deliberate political decisions taken by Conservative governments to reduce the welfare bill – in particular, the 2016-20 benefits freeze.
Rishi Sunak increased universal credit by £20 a week early in the pandemic, in an implicit admission that the payments had become too paltry to live on. The chancellor has not yet said whether that will remain in place from April, choosing instead in a recent Spectator interview to highlight the necessity of “hard choices” to tackle the deficit.
With Rashford already on the warpath, extending the £20 a week increase looks all but inevitable; but the government will continue to remain vulnerable to the campaigning footballer’s attacks as long as there are parents in 21st-century Britain who cannot afford to feed their kids.