James Kirkup

Free school meals and the anatomy of a U-turn

Free school meals and the anatomy of a U-turn
Picture by Andrew Parsons / No. 10 Downing Street
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No. 10's screeching U-turn on food for low-income kids over the summer will not do the government or ministers serious harm with the wider public. That doesn’t mean it’s not a problem.

First, the public. They are not on Twitter. This fact cannot be repeated enough around Westminster. In a finding that should be tattooed on the flesh of every politician and journalist in and around Westminster, the latest Reuters digital news report finds that only 14 per cent of the UK population say they get news from Twitter.

The hours of Twitter frenzy that precede the U-turn will have gone largely unnoticed by most people. The BBC (including its website) is still, by a mile, the biggest news source in Britain. And quite a lot of those people will first hear about this story as 'government backs nice footballer’s campaign to be nice to poor kids'. That may even play quite well with some voters, not least since that (remarkably impressive) footballer is being impressively gracious about the change of direction. As I write this, the BBC’s home page is leading with this story, with a sub-head: 'The Manchester United star praises the move…'

Despite the excitement they generate in the village, U-turns can be sensible and popular. Do not be surprised if this one does the government’s standing no harm – and even a little good – among the public. But that doesn’t mean this is a cost-free move. Far from it. It burns goodwill among friends and allies, and just fuels doubts about the effectiveness and judgement of the No. 10 operation.

For a lot of people, including Conservative MPs, the question is: why on earth did No. 10 dig in and fight what looked to everyone else like an unwinnable fight with a smart and popular star over what is, by current standards, a modest sum of money? For a smaller group, made up of ministers and backbench loyalists, the question is: why on earth do I go out on the airwaves and defend this lot when they just end up folding anyway?

Just about any No. 10 operation can instil some fear in ministers, SpAd and MPs – the PM still has the power to hire and fire, and sometimes, deselect. And this is a PM with a majority of 80 and more than four years until the next election. But fear is not the same thing as respect, and respect is a far more powerful management tool. That’s what’s at stake here.

Chattering about 'the No. 10 operation' is a perennial Westminster parlour game, of no interest anywhere beyond the village. But this stuff does matter to the functioning of government. Even in normal times, the success or failure of a government depends rather too much on how effective and competent the centre is. And these are not normal times.

Team Johnson has decided to run the coronavirus response not though cabinet but a smaller group, with the No. 10 machine at its heart. The Rashford surrender is, in isolation, small beer, but it has not happened in isolation. It comes against a backdrop of growing doubt among Conservative MPs and senior officials about how well No. 10 is gripping the business in hand, and what, if anything, the strategy driven from the centre is.

When I was a Lobby hack, I must have written dozens of stories about 'the No. 10 machine', so I know precisely how little such chatter really matters beyond SW1A. But if I was still doing that job, I’d currently be tasting blood in the water, and anticipating more to come.

So look out for the next steps in the time-honoured ritual of political coverage, to be played out in the next couple of weeks:

  • More anonymous quotes from ministers (and SpAds) venting spleens about No. 10.
  • Reports about Tory 'grandees' – former cabinet ministers and maybe the 1922 exec – demanding new structures and personnel in Downing Street.
  • Commentators talking about the need for a full-blooded Chief of Staff in No. 10.
  • Briefings about the PM giving a big speech, and perhaps shaking up his top team.
  • Strenuous denials that the big speech and the shake-up are a 'relaunch'.
  • Hacks and MPs largely ignoring those denials.

Some wounds are so small you barely feel them. But they still bleed. Caving in to Marcus Rashford won’t do Boris Johnson and his team any harm. Not yet, anyway.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is the Director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of The Scotsman and The Daily Telegraph

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