Tory attempts to justify opposition to free school meals over the holidays are becoming increasingly desperate, and have a shrinking audience among the public.
“Not destroying the currency with excessive QE is also one of our duties,” backbench Tory MP Steve Baker barked on Twitter at Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, who successfully led a campaign for free school meals over the summer holidays, and is now seeking the same for the October and Christmas holidays. The Scottish and Welsh governments have stumped up the money, but the UK Government refuses to budge for England.
Rashford told Baker to turn his comments on so they could debate the issue, leading Baker to reply: “You have 3.4 million followers Marcus, to my 96K. The power is yours here. Everyone knows feeding hungry children is a top priority. I’d like to see UC [universal credit] boosted. But if the economy and currency collapse, the poor will be devastated. Alleging a blind eye is just wrong.”
It’s unsurprising Baker chose free school meals to get concerned about QE. Some £745 billion has been created in new money by the Bank of England since the start of the pandemic crisis, and has gone to such good causes as propping up the likes of G4S (£300 million) and EasyJet (£600 million), but a measly £100+ million for hungry kids is of course the straw that will break the camel’s back for Baker. It could ruin the currency, don’t you know.
Baker’s attempt to use the esoteric QE to bamboozle opponents at least has a novelty factor. Usually, the Tories just deploy the “there’s no magic money tree” line. But perhaps Baker and his colleagues are aware that argument looks increasingly dodgy when the magic money tree suddenly appears right on cue for bankers and the big corporates. Instead, the new line of Baker is that too much of the magic money tree is dangerous. I’m not sure that will work – CPI inflation is under one per cent. If anything is going to wreck the British pound, it’s deflation not inflation.
It’s interesting that in a piece by the BBC’s Economics Editor Faisal Islam titled “Is there really no money for free school meals?”, the old lines about the debt and deficit are gone.
“The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) this afternoon [21 October] also published a chart showing that of the £262 billion that the Treasury has borrowed by issuing gilts, £246 billion has been bought by the Bank of England,” Islam writes.
“The central bank has indirectly created and lent most of the extra money required by the government. Overall, the government has not had to raise the funds from the private sector or abroad. So, no, we aren’t really running out of cash.”
Are we seeing a sea-change in the debate around public money, where even Tory MPs and the BBC have to recognise that the “we can’t keep paying for household bills with the credit card” line – which were almost unquestioned in mainstream debates when David Cameron and George Osborne were spouting these arguments ten years ago – are just not going to wash anymore? Time will tell, but if so the Tories are going to have to change their tactics.
Ben Bradley, another backbench MP, took a different tack when tackling Rashford on Twitter, opting for a bit of old school Tory moralism: free school meals “passes responsibility for feeding kids away from parents, to the state,” Bradley argued, adding: “It increases dependency.”
The Tories will always find an audience for blaming parents for not being able to feed their kids, but that audience is shrinking in an age of in-work poverty, when most children in poverty have parents who are employed, but can’t earn enough to meet basic household costs (and of course many parents couldn’t work at all at the height of the pandemic). Rashford’s own story of his mother working multiple jobs all hours of the day to try to put food on the table for him is a case in point. Rashford, 22, was brought up in the Tory austerity years.
The obvious question is: why is Johnson digging his heels in and resisting free school meals over the holidays? The huge political damage he’s facing now as thousands of councils, businesses and community groups take the matter in to their own hands and back Rashford’s campaign will be multiplied many times over if free school meal provisions are not provided over the Christmas holidays. Labour are making huge hay out of Johnson’s callousness.
The answer is: this is the Tories. They have to feel like they are drawing the line somewhere – that they can be seen to spend up to a certain point and no more – and that line is always drawn where it hurts the poorest most. It’s a myth that the Tories are more frugal when it comes to public borrowing – the vast majority of UK public debt created since the end of the second war has been under Tory governments – but what is certainly true is they are more savage when it comes to cutting spending on key social programmes.
The most notorious case of Tory meanness is Margaret Thatcher cutting the free milk program for kids over the age of seven when she was Education Secretary in 1971. For years after school kids would chant “Thatcher, Thatcher, milk snatcher” in playgrounds. The National Archives show that as Prime Minister in 1990, Thatcher opposed her Health Secretary Ken Clarke cutting free school milk for nursery school kids, regretting her own milk snatching days.
“No – this will cause a terrible row – all for £4 million,” Thatcher wrote in a scrawled note next to the proposal. “I know – I went through it 19 years ago.”
Johnson may live to regret depriving school kids over the holidays. Tory excuses to justify cruelty appear even more weak than in Thatcher’s day.