On the day his political soulmate was being urged to belatedly show some humility after defeat in the US election, Boris Johnson once again bowed to the better judgment of a 23-year-old footballer, in the latest of a series of high-profile U-turns.
After weeks of digging in his heels and refusing to cede to calls to extend free school meals to children from low-income families during school holidays in England, Johnson phoned the Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford on Saturday night to inform him of his change of heart.
The package includes a £170m Covid winter grant scheme to support vulnerable families in England and an extension of the holiday activities and food programme to the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks next year.
The reversal came after a crescendo of criticism, led by Rashford, but also from charities, the opposition, media on both sides of the political divide and even some Conservative MPs, who realised how out of tune their party was with the public mood.
It was the second time the Manchester United star had forced the government to change course this year. On the previous occasion, which last month earned Rashford an MBE, No 10 had initially rejected his plea for it to keep paying for £15-a-week food vouchers for some of England’s poorest families over the summer, only to cave in amid a public outcry.
Just under five months later, the Old Etonian prime minister picked up the phone and again called Rashford, who has spoken of his experience of food poverty growing up in Wythenshawe, breaking the news in what the striker described as a “good conversation”.
Showing diplomatic skills to match his footballing prowess, Rashford said: “There is still so much more to do, and my immediate concern is the approximate 1.7 million children who miss out on free school meals, holiday provision and Healthy Start vouchers because their family income isn’t quite low enough. But the intent the government have shown today is nothing but positive, and they should be recognised for that.”
Among those who hailed Rashford’s role were Save the Children UK, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the archbishop of Canterbury. The tennis coach, Judy Murray simply tweeted: “Rashford 2 Johnston [sic] 0.”
The children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, said: “I welcome these steps towards providing more free meals and healthy diets for children who need them and holiday activities. Families are facing hard times financially and this will help.”
Longfield had previously likened the debate over the issue to something out of the pages of Charles Dickens’ 19th-century novel Oliver Twist. Tory MPs had suggested that extending free school meals would increase dependency or destroy the currency because of the cost.
One Conservative MP, Brendan Clarke-Smith, called for “less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty”. After the Conservatives’ defeat of a Labour motion to extend free school meals prompted councils, local businesses, charities and community groups to step in to fill the void over half-term, opposition and accusations of virtue-signalling appeared ever further removed from reality. Nevertheless, Downing Street repeatedly declined to praise the organisations, saying only that it did not believe free school meals were necessary outside term.
In a year that has also seen U-turns on the second national lockdown, extending the furlough scheme and A-level and GCSE results, Rashford’s warning that “there is still so much more to do” may be liable to bring Johnson out in a cold sweat.
Of the three demands in Rashford’s petition to end child food poverty, which has attracted more than 1m signatures, the one that remains unfulfilled is: “Expand free school meals to all under-16s where a parent or guardian is in receipt of universal credit or equivalent benefit.” The government is also poised for a battle over the £20-a-week pandemic supplement to universal credit, which is due to end in April.
Longfield and the Trussell Trust were among those who tempered their appreciation for the latest policy about-face by calling for the £20 universal credit increase to be retained. Becca Lyon, head of child poverty at Save the Children UK, said: “Families need to know that they’re not going to be £1,000 down next year, when the increase ends in April.”