It’s not free school meals Boris Johnson has messed up, it was giving Marcus Rashford an MBE

Tom Peck
·3-min read

It’s becoming ever clearer to see that, actually, where Boris Johnson has got this wrong is not in taking meals away from hungry children, but in giving Marcus Rashford an MBE.

Because the trouble with bestowing a formal honour on someone for Services to Pointing Out What The Government Has Got Hopelessly Wrong is that, when they carry on pointing out what the government has got hopelessly wrong, it makes it extremely difficult to ignore them, as the prime minister is currently and absolutely agonisingly discovering.

What, exactly, did Johnson imagine he would stand to gain, by ennobling a footballer for telling him not to take free school meals away from vulnerable children? Was he hoping an MBE might make it all go away? That, by formally and publicly acknowledging Marcus Rashford’s campaigning efforts, which have captured the public imagination like nothing in years, he would then be persuaded, the next time you tried to take the meals away again, to just drop it?

Because, well, he hasn’t dropped it. And nor has seemingly every cafe and restaurant in the country. McDonald’s has donated one million meals, and it has landed both Johnson and the rest of his cabinet in the quite deliciously stunning position of having to go on the television and the radio and congratulate Marcus Rashford for everything he’s doing at the same time as explaining why he’s actually, completely in the wrong.

It ends with Matt Hancock, on the Today programme, saying such mesmerising words as, “I think we can all agree that no children should go hungry at Christmas.”

What goes through a politician’s head, exactly, before these words exit their gob? Absolutely nothing at all? Just a desperate desire to make it through to the next five seconds, when a new and at least mercifully different strand of the public humiliation might commence?

To listen to Matt Hancock speak these days is to hear a man in search of a desperate cure for the hiccups. You may know the one. Take a deep breath and then just keep speaking for as long as you possibly can, so that air is emitted slowly but constantly, the diaphragm will be held firm but slowly contract and maybe, just maybe, convulse no further. The preferred method is to try and count to a thousand in fives, but you know, you can just go on the radio and say things like, “I think we can all agree that no children should go hungry at Christmas.”

Who, may we ask, is the “we all” here? Who are the dissenting voices, being brought together under the banner of children not starving at Christmas? Because currently, the only thing that Marcus Rashford, almost every local council and every single dining establishment in the country agrees on is that, yes, children shouldn’t go hungry at Christmas, and that it’s the government that’s taking away the meals it was providing, barely seven weeks ago.

In the first pages of his book, The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama writes about politics as the art of conflict resolution, about how whoever’s in the room, however much they disagree, there’ll always be something – something – they can agree on, there’ll always be some common ground, and if you find it then you can go from there.

Quite how you build back up again once you’ve had to go as low as not starving children at Christmas, Mr Obama did not make clear, but he operated in simpler times. And, well, he somehow managed to resist the temptation to hang medals round the neck of people who told him he was wrong. Because that’s how you make life very difficult for yourself indeed.

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