Timeline of a Tory PR disaster – the free school meals debacle

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“Short of drowning a basket of puppies live on air, I can’t think of a worse communications fail.” No, that wasn’t me. That was Sarah Vine in the Mail on Sunday in a column entitled, “How could N°10 let free school meals turn into a dog’s dinner?”  Me agreeing with the fragrant Mrs Gove —for she is the wife of the lesser spotted toad of a politician of that name— occurs about as often as a black swan event. This is one of those rare occasions. How did we get here?

WEDNESDAY, October 21st

It all began when Labour laid the first of their Opposition Day motions, on financial support for different tiers of Covid-19restrictions. Near the end of Heywood and Middleton MP Chris Clarkson’s speech, where he had indulged in a litany of on-the-surface polite but very nasty attacks on Labour, Ashton-under-Lyne MP Angela Rayner was heard to utter the word “scum”. Not that one excuses the other, but it is important, given all the pearl-clutching that is going on in the Conservative and Unionist Party, to put some context around Ms Rayner’s barely audible exclamation. Madame Deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing immediately gave her a dressing down. I have never seen her so angry:

“Order. We will not have remarks like that from the Front Bench: not under any circumstances, no matter how heartfelt they might be—not at all,” she hissed.

What on earth has this got to do with Tories voting down free school meals during school holidays in the midst of a pandemic, you may wonder? All will be revealed…

The next item on the agenda was Labour’s second opposition day motion, on free school meals during school holidays until Easter next year, by which time the pandemic will have hopefully abated and a degree of normality will have returned. Labour had chosen this motion in support of Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford’s campaign. Although opposition day motions are not binding on government, they serve as an expression of the house, and it would be foolish of any government to ignore them.

Prior to the vote, there had been some ‘interesting’ speeches. One in particular, that of Bassetlaw MP Brendan Clarke-Smith, stood out for its offensiveness. He intimated that giving free school meals would be tantamount to ‘nationalising children’ and obliquely slandered Marcus Rashford when he called for “less celebrity virtue-signalling on Twitter by proxy and more action to tackle the real causes of child poverty.” Mr Clarke-Smith was formerly a teacher. You might reasonably expect him to know that while running programmes and campaigns to help people, or to help them to help themselves, emergency situations may arise that call for an immediate solution. Those in the emergency situation need help NOW, not in months or even years from now when this, that and the other initiative finally bears fruit (if ever). This is why every undertaking worth its salt has a contingency budget and plan.

Free school meals during the school holidays at a time when the Covid-19 virus is resurgent, the second wave of the pandemic is looming, and many areas are already under strict restrictions, is just such an emergency. Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Thérèse Coffey’s argument, that it is unnecessary to provide free school meals during school holidays now that we are no longer in full lockdown and some people are back at work, is unconvincing. While some people are lucky enough to still have their job, many have gone back to the same hours but reduced pay, or reduced hours, or reduced hours AND reduced pay, or even redundancy. We most definitely are not out of the Covid-19 woods yet…

Sadly, 322 Tory MPs were either swayed by such arguments, or else blindly followed the whip to vote against the motion. Government may have forbidden the House of Commons Twitter account from publishing the results of divisions (after one went viral), and BBC News may have declined to report it, preferring instead to focus on Ms Rayner saying “scum”, but the news of the vote nevertheless spread like wildfire through the public. The reaction was swift and sharp. Many took to social media to express their anger and the hashtag #ToryScum briefly trended on Twitter.

It should have been a no-brainer. Who could vote against feeding hungry children one nutritious meal a day over the autumn half-term and Christmas school holidays at a teensy-weensy fraction of the tsunami of taxpayers’ funds thrown at Dido Harding’s Serco & Sitel track and trace operation? As it happens, three hundred and twenty-two Tory MPs, that’s who. It looks worse when it’s written out in words, doesn’t it? Three hundred and twenty-two.

Mr Clarkson wasted no time in writing a letter to Ms Rayner demanding an apology. This we know because he humble-bragged about it on Twitter. Hours later Ms Rayner issued a formal apology, also made available across social media, as well as on major news platforms. Meanwhile a handful of Tory MPs seemed to be trying to ‘out-scum’ each other. Mansfield MP Ben Bradley, who once called for jobless men to have vasectomies, agreed with a tweet that described free school meals as: “£20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel” and replied “That’s what FSM vouchers in the summer effectively did…” (tweets since deleted). Workington MP Mark Jenkinson backed him up. Quote-tweeting Angela Rayner, who criticised Bradley for stigmatising the working classes, Jenkinson accused her of either being disingenuous or ignorant about what is going on in her constituency, claiming “I know in my constituency that, as tiny as a minority it might be, food parcels are sold or traded for drugs.” Even if that were true, it is not an excuse to make ALL schoolchildren go hungry. Tory MPs might benefit from a course on risk and probability, because they don’t appear to be very good at identifying the former or weighting them by the latter.

THURSDAY, October 22nd

Yet the reaction was not entirely negative. Within 24 hours of the vote, Marcus Rashford’s timeline had become a thing of beauty.  He put out an appeal for help, and the response was immediate and heart-warming. Restaurants, cafés and food outlets up and down the country offered to help. He began to retweet them all. Thousands joined in, retweeting the ones in their locality. All day long the offers poured in. Some councils began to get in on the act too.

Tory MPs —apart from the five who voted for the motion (Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne), Robert Halfon (Harlow), Jason McCartney (Colne Valley), Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot), and Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe)) and those who abstained— were looking increasingly Scrooge-like. Here was the hospitality industry badly hit by the pandemic, in dire straits, stepping up to help out. Was refusing to feed hungry children really the hill they wanted to die on?

Yes, it certainly was. Baroness Nicky Morgan admitted on BBC Question Time that the only reason the Tories had voted down the motion was because Labour had brought it. This revelation was absolutely staggering to the millions of us around the country who aren’t particularly partisan, politically speaking. Could the Tories really put pride before feeding hungry children? A snippy Facebook post by North Devon MP Selaine Saxby confirmed they could. “I am delighted our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support.” (She has since deleted the post, but you can read all about it in an article by WCB Editor Anthea Simmons here.)

FRIDAY, October 23rd

The Tories were really in trouble now. Public anger was reaching epic Dominic-Cummings-breaking-lockdown proportions. EVERYONE was talking about the Tories allowing children to go hungry. They tried to spin the Covid-19 grants given to local councils back in June as ‘we’ve already addressed this issue, let’s move on’, but the public were having none of it. Bored out of their trees during lockdown, many had read the guidance given to Councils and knew the money had been intended to be spent over a 12-week period —a time frame that has already expired. It would be a neat trick if the money from the Tory magic money tree was itself magic and could be spent twice over.

Despite flooding Twitter with memes patting themselves on their backs, their disingenuous spin stalled. They tried another tack: distraction. West Bromwich West MP Shaun Bailey ranted in the Commons, saying his mother had been called scum over the phone. Party Chair and Cannock Chase MP Amanda Milling sent a letter to Keir Starmer, signed by 119 (mostly newbie) MPs, demanding that he apologise for Angela Rayner’s unparliamentary behaviour. There are several obvious problems with this. Angela Rayner apologised on the day she gave offence. There is a long tradition of calling Tories scum. Have they forgotten about the thousands of demonstrators outside the 2017 Tory Party conference waving ‘Tory Scum’ banners? People aren’t calling the Tories scum because of something Angela Rayner said, but because of their own statements and behaviour. Tory ministers in this government never apologise, even when their hateful comments result in attempted murder, as has happened recently after Home Secretary Priti Patel’s series of inflammatory, below-the-belt jibes against the legal profession.

Marcus Rashford to the rescue. He put out a tweet decrying the abuse and encouraging everyone to behave respectfully. “Let us stay focused on what is most important, which is feeding our children and making sure they get the help that they need. I appreciate you all.” He always takes the higher path. Never mind Sportsman of the Year. That young man deserves sainthood. I hope somebody watches over him, for the press love to destroy those they previously venerated…

Later that night, the government announced it was slashing the provision of laptops to poor pupils by up to eighty per cent. Head teachers were left in a state of disbelief. The Tories really do make it difficult to love them, don’t they?


The battle raged all over the weekend. Protestors came up with some highly creative, and respectful, ideas to register their displeasure. Displays of teddy-bears unable to attend a teddy bear’s picnic for lack of food and empty plates with pert messages began to appear outside MPs’ constituency offices. Labour said they would try again, and bring a motion for free school meals over the Christmas holidays. Education Select Committee Chair and Harlow MP Robert Halfon wrote a brilliant article for the Spectator. Defence Select Committee Chair and Bournemouth East MP Tobias Ellwood told Sky News he would now support free school meals. Even Johnson ally, Liaison Committee Chair and Harwich and North Essex MP Bernard Jenkin, hinted that he thought government should U-turn.

All memes by the author


Still no U-turn, but we’ve reached the stage where the Prime Minister has told a fib about having ‘communications’ with Marcus Rashford. Last time that preceded a U-turn. Tory back-benchers are reported to be deeply unhappy with the situation. The Daily Express, usually rabidly pro-government, last week published an article naming and shaming the Tory MPs who voted against Labour’s motion and this week it is carrying a story that 100 Tories are ready to rebel if there’s another vote. Labour have over-taken the Tories in the polls. So much for Dominic Cummings being a ‘comms genius’. In his own living room, maybe.

Johnson knows he is going to have to U-turn. We know he is going to have to U-turn. He knows we know… Why doesn’t he get on with it? Although the local efforts have been brilliant and generous, we can’t be sure every child was reached. What about those who aren’t on social media? What about those who don’t have access to a computer? The time to act is NOW.