Boris Johnson is battling a growing rebellion among Tory backbenchers over his refusal to U-turn over free school meals for the poorest children this Christmas.
The government was under fresh pressure to back footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign to feed children in poverty-hit families over the school holidays, as Labour said on Sunday it would force another Commons vote on the issue.
Following a furious public backlash after the prime minister blocked the plan on Wednesday, a series of senior Conservatives have warned they could now vote against the government.
It came as England and Manchester United striker Rashford, whose petition has gathered more than 800,000 signatures, has been tweeting about a string of councils and businesses stepping in to provide free food to those in need during the pandemic.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said on Sunday it was “not too late to do the right thing” as he confirmed his party would force another division if ministers did not back down in time for the Christmas holidays.
Despite the growing pressure, however, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis – who was sent out to the TV studios to defend the government’s position on Sunday – insisted ministers were doing enough to help.
Former defence minister Tobias Ellwood was among the senior Tories to say he regretted voting with the government last week.
“If there is popularity here to use, it would be churlish not to consider and I do hope that that’s where we’ll end up,” he told Times Radio.
The Tory chair of the women and equalities committee Caroline Nokes said that the government “absolutely” had to reconsider the policy.
“I think it has to be quick and it has to be very, very clear,” she said.
She suggested, however, that rather than backing another voucher scheme, the government should make the £20 temporary uplift to Universal Credit.
“There needs to be structural change. Rather than leave families reliant on vouchers for food, which is really outdated, and there is a real danger of a stigma attached, it should be part of the child element of UC,” she said.
Another former minister, Tim Loughton, said it had been a “mistake” not to continue with free meals during the holidays following the summer and that he was prepared to vote against the government if there was another vote.
“Free school meals is just one of those totemic things – it is like the NHS, it can do no wrong,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend.
“For all the hassle this has caused, taking away from the really good measures the government has taken across the board, I just don’t think it was worth the argument. I think it was just politically a mistake.”
The government comfortably defeated last week’s Labour motion calling for the extension of free meals during the holidays until Easter 2021 with a Commons majority of more than 60, with just five Tory MPs breaking ranks to vote with the opposition.
However, having already been forced to U-turn on the issue over the summer as a result of Rashford’s campaigning, ministers will fear another revolt when MPs return to Westminster following this week’s half-term recess.
Lewis insisted the government had the “right position”, increasing Universal Credit and providing £63m to local authorities to help people in their communities at a time of hardship.
“I know this is a very emotive issue. It is a sensitive issue. It is something that affects families in my constituency as well as round the country,” he said on Sunday.
“What we are looking to do is ensure that we deal with child poverty at the core, putting the structure in place that means even in school holidays children can get access to the food that they need.”