“He’s got his culture war, alright. And we’re on the wrong side.” That grim verdict of one former minister on Boris Johnson’s handling of the free school meals row is shared by many Tory MPs facing the backlash of recent days.
Outfought and outthought by both Marcus Rashford’s razor-sharp social media campaign and Labour’s Commons manoeuvring, Conservative backbenchers are urging Downing Street to finally come up with a solution that kills for good the idea that the government will leave children hungry over Christmas.
As No.10 scrambles to catch up with the public mood, cabinet ministers Brandon Lewis and Matt Hancock have hinted at fresh help for youngsters from poorer backgrounds without necessarily opting for an extension of free meals over holiday periods.
Johnson himself broke cover on Monday to say his ministers would “make sure that we have no children” in England “who go hungry this winter”, without giving any details on how he would achieve that.
But for many Tory MPs who have talked to HuffPost UK, the whole saga has exposed deeper problems including Johnson’s lack of focus, Downing Street’s failing political antennae, the effectiveness of the whips’ office, and Dominic Cummings’ disdain for backbenchers.
Faced with a Labour Party that this weekend edged ahead in the polls, the concern is that No.10 is failing to cope in trying to sort the Covid crisis and deliver a Brexit deal while faced with all the other pressures of being in office.
With looming rebellions over planning reforms and food farming standards post-Brexit that hit the Tory shires, anger at the failures of the so-called NHS Test and Trace programme, rows over the tier 2 and 3 coronavirus restrictions, plus the threat of mass unemployment over winter, the sense of unease is palpable.
Most fundamentally of all, for some MPs the free school meals saga has revealed the internal contradictions in what “Johnsonism” itself really means. Is its priority...