As he spoke at the Downing Street podium, the prime minister gave the impression he just wished he had heard about Marcus Rashford sooner.
If only he had been made aware of the Manchester United star’s campaign for the government to provide free school meal vouchers to 1.3 million children through the summer holidays, then – Boris Johnson implied – the government would have acted earlier.
Indeed, he found it such a good idea he saw fit to give him a call this afternoon.
“I talked to Marcus Rashford today to congratulate him on his campaign, which to be honest I only became aware of very recently, or today, and I thank him for what he’s done, I think he’s right to draw attention to this issue”, the prime minister said.
It was a curious framing of the government’s £120m U-turn, which hours earlier the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had been insisting would not happen.
Mr Shapps seemed very aware of Rashford’s campaign as he gave numerous interviews explaining why the government’s pledge of £63m to local authorities was a better approach than food vouchers.
It is no surprise Mr Shapps was anticipating having to make that defence given yesterday the PM’s official spokesman confirmed that Mr Johnson would soon be responding to a letter from the 22-year-old footballer and praised Rashford for “using his profile in a positive way”.
At the same time yesterday, Mr Johnson’s party whips were organising an amendment to a Labour opposition day motion that would be discussed in the Commons today.
The same argument was to be deployed – that local authorities had been given additional money to support people, and there was no need to provide additional free school meal vouchers over the summer.
The Conservative Party whips were aware they had to get their backbench MPs in line on the issue because it was also raised last Wednesday at Prime Minister’s Questions, when the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged Mr Johnson to reconsider his position on free school meal vouchers.
The PM’s response then was, again, that additional local authority funding rather than extending the voucher scheme was the government’s plan.
None of this sits particularly easily with the PM’s assertion that he had only become aware of Rashford’s campaign today.
But perhaps that is too literal a reading of Mr Johnson’s comments.
The significance of Rashford’s campaign is that he not only amplified the voices of the families and children who will benefit from the extension of the scheme, but also the voice of the charities and the official opposition, whose demands for this change had previously faced rejection at each response.
By making clear the issue was more than a Westminster attack line from the opposition, Rashford’s interventions gave political cover for some Conservative backbenchers to publicly back it.
Weighed on the political scales, the balance had been tipped towards a U-turn yesterday at the latest, but probably over the weekend.
And yet there is extreme wariness in government – particularly in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions – about emergency coronavirus measures setting precedents that will become politically impossible to step back from in the future.
Seen from this perspective, the risks associated with extending the free school meal voucher scheme through the summer are twofold.
First, that it will become an expectation for all school holidays going forward at a cost the government is not convinced can be sustained; second, that they provide an incentive to any well-admired public figure with a big enough profile to believe they can deploy it to force the government’s hand.
Someone in Number 10 decided, despite those risks, there was now such a head of steam that the government had no option but to make an abrupt about turn.
Perhaps it was that which the prime minister only became aware of today.
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