The Guardian view on Marcus Rashford's triumph: a political masterclass | Editorial

By persuading the government to extend the free meal voucher scheme, the Manchester United footballer has taught the prime minister a lesson on solidarity

This Friday, Marcus Rashford will hope to play a starring role for Manchester United, as his team resumes its interrupted Premier League campaign. Even if the 22-year-old striker scores a match-winning hat-trick, it will still not come close to being his best performance of the week.

On Monday, Mr Rashford published an open letter to MPs. In it he called for an extension, through the summer holidays, of the voucher scheme that has provided children from poorer families with free meals during lockdown. With cool condescension, Downing Street initially let it be known that, though the footballer had used his fame to “highlight some very important issues”, Boris Johnson would not be taking up his idea. The scheme, it was needlessly pointed out, ordinarily operated only during term time.

As Mr Johnson has been forced to learn yet again, these are not ordinary times. By late morning on Tuesday, as Mr Rashford was going through his paces in training, the latest spectacular U-turn had taken place. In a bid to head off a House of Commons rebellion on the issue by Conservative MPs, the prime minister’s spokesman announced a new £120m summer food fund, targeted at families entitled to free school meals.

From the failure to spot the iniquity of forcing foreign nurses and carers to pay an NHS surcharge to the self-inflicted damage of the Cummings affair, Mr Johnson has in this crisis repeatedly demonstrated a tin ear on charged and emotional matters. His modus operandi seems to be a strange mixture of cynicism and incompetence.

But the deeper meaning of Mr Rashford’s triumph transcends the shabby miscalculations taking place inside No 10. This was a young Mancunian who grew up in one of the poorest districts of his city, standing up for the experience of hundreds of thousands of others like him, across the country. He did so with authenticity, passion and eloquence. Mr Rashford has already donated time and money to the FareShare charity, which has raised £20m to help feed vulnerable children.

That was admirable use of the wealth acquired through his talent. But the courageous prosecution of his case with the prime minister – and the refusal to take Mr Johnson’s no for an answer – carries a special significance: Mr Rashford spoke on behalf of, and won a victory for, people who far too seldom command the Tory party’s attention.

The message he communicated was simple: the love, kindness and communal concern that sustained his own family – the breakfast clubs and Christmas meals; the kindness of neighbours and volunteers – should never be left to chance in a child’s life. That sense of solidarity should, rather, find its highest expression at the very top of politics; it should be present in the guarantees that a government makes to all families, however unlucky their circumstances.

In the time of Covid-19, this must mean unprecedented ambition to deal with uniquely demanding months ahead. As Mr Rashford suggests, “ordinary” measures are nowhere good enough to assist poorer housholds at a time when mass 1980s-style unemployment looms. It also means recognising and acting upon the legacy of structural inequalities that, as a black, working-class boy, he witnessed at first hand. During the pandemic, millions of children have fallen so far behind that it will now be a challenge to ever properly catch up. Children in families without digital access, and lacking the support networks that were demolished during a decade of austerity, will be the worst off of all. Educational help, as well as food, will be urgently required in the coming period.

Mr Rashford has played a blinder. The government must first make good on the commitment he extracted from it. Then it must up its own game.

Contributor

Editorial

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