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Mondays in a Commons half-term recess are supposed to be quiet times for MPs and, to a lesser extent, ministers. Not today, as the torrid weekend of public anger over free school meals continued unabated. WhatsApp groups and texts have seen backbenchers message each other with their despair at the sheer lack of direction and leadership on the topic.
As I write in my longer piece on what’s gone wrong over the issue, the Marcus Rashford campaign has exposed a deeper unease over just how No.10 does politics and how much it listens to its foot soldiers. It’s also raised questions over the very nature of “Johnsonism” itself: is it really about interventionist spending (as the voters were told) or is it about balancing the books and individual responsibility (as many Tory MPs think)?
That spectre of “the nasty party”, that Boris Johnson so effectively neutralised in the north and elsewhere in the last election, is certainly back. The PM has gone out of his way to say he won’t be returning to austerity (though his refusal to use the word perhaps gives a clue to how shifty he can be on the topic) and that he will be delivering on his promises of new hospitals, more nurses and “levelling” up the whole country.
The toxic nature of the free school meals vote last week means that the government looks like it’s “grinding down” the poorest, not levelling anything up. But some MPs think that term itself is totally meaningless to many voters. A former minister tells me that when he tested the “levelling up” phrase randomly among constituents, one voter replied: “do you mean the potholes?”
Johnson normally gets away without focusing on details because he’s so good at the big picture that voters prefer. The problem is that his (and Gavin Williamson’s) handling of the Rashford campaign has left the government with neither a big picture answer nor a detailed rebuttal. As Manchester University’s Rob Ford tells me, he’s not learning the lessons of his own Brexit or election campaign: focus on symbolism.
Or, as one former minister put it more pithily to me: “What would it cost, £70m max, to sort it? He should have said ‘fuck it, just do it’ and we could have all avoided the flak we are getting.”
Instead, the best the PM could do today was to issue a short TV clip with a vague message that he would “make sure that we have no children” in England “who go hungry this winter”. No plan, no policy, just a ‘trust me’ plea. Backbenchers were unsure whether this was the PM standing firm, or coming up with a smarter policy, or just treading-water waffle.
Rashford’s combination of a long-term policy solution and a short-term social media campaign has proved he has a better feel for politics (without being party pris) than most professional politicians. The “cut-through” has been huge, as the raft of quotes from MPs I’ve had in the past 24 hours makes clear. The last two times anything had such an impact was Rashford’s summer campaign on the same topic, and when Dominic Cummings took a scenic tour of the north east.
As yet another ex minister said to me, this latest row is “months after the Cummings fiasco..both handled really badly, both cut through the noise and both won’t be forgotten. Drives me to despair.”
Perhaps the most worrying thing for many Tory MPs is just how fragile their 80 seat majority now looks, just 11 months after that comprehensive victory over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. Several of them are just appalled at how their party could be humiliated by such an obvious and predictable device as an Opposition Day motion. Many assumed the PM had something up his sleeve but in fact there was nothing other than a weak set of talking points.
With even No.10 now realising that it cannot allow the October half term nightmare to turn into a Christmas catastrophe, Keir Starmer is threatening to force another vote. I’m told Labour had been due another Opposition Day on November 4 next week, but – surprise, surprise - the government pulled last Thursday, the morning after last week’s vote. Starmer could use an emergency Standing Order 24 debate instead, however, if the Speaker permits.
There is still some hope on the Tory backbenches that No.10 can stop the self-inflicted wounds, that the Covid curve will flatten before Christmas, that a Brexit deal will lift the gloom in part and that even the PM’s own poor ratings are bottoming out.
But many of his own MPs a braced for a long, hard political winter, and some think it will need a clear out of the cabinet and the No.10 team before things get really better.