George Osborne today stuck the boot into Boris Johnson over the Government’s handling of the free school meals row as he said Marcus Rashford had ‘nutmegged’ the Prime Minister and a U-turn is now ‘inevitable’.
The ex-chancellor said the Manchester United and England footballer had made the Cabinet ‘look like a school yard football team’ and with Tory MPs now ‘getting nervy’ the PM will have no choice but to back down.
Mr Osborne’s intervention came after a millionaire minister had claimed holiday activities are ‘more important’ to disadvantaged children than free meals.
Nadhim Zahawi, the business minister, said the ‘best way’ to deal with poverty was through local government schemes and the welfare system as he pointed to a pilot programme which provided food and activities to poor children during the summer holidays.
But the married father-of-three who made his money in oil and gas exploration risked outcry as he claimed parents ‘appreciate the food but more important than the food to them was the activities’.
The Government remains under intense pressure to change tack on free school meals as a campaign led by Mr Rashford continues to gather pace and a Tory revolt grows.
Campaigners want the scheme, which costs about £20million per week, to be extended to cover future school holidays. If it applied to all 13 weeks of school holidays it could therefore cost an estimated £260million extra a year.
Mr Johnson dug in on the issue yesterday as he refused to budge, but the approach taken by Number 10 has sparked widespread Tory anger, with MPs adamant the Government should U-turn.
Conservative backbenchers also signalled today they could rebel over ‘unconscionable’ plans to remove a temporary coronavirus-related increase to Universal Credit payments.
Meanwhile, the Government is under fire from council bosses as they accused ministers of short changing them on funding to tackle child poverty.
Councillor David Mellen, the leader of Nottingham City Council, claimed the Government was guilty of ‘double-counting’ funding provided to local authorities.
Business Minister Nadhim Zahawi today claimed holiday activities for poor children were ‘more important’ than free meals
Councillor David Mellen, the leader of Nottingham City Council, claimed the Government was guilty of ‘double-counting’ funding provided to local authorities to tackle child poverty
Who is Nadhim Zahawi, the millionaire Tory minister who is often sent out to bat for the Government?
Nadhim Zahawi is a junior minister at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) but he has become one of Downing Street’s most trusted communicators during the coronavirus crisis.
Mr Zahawi, a millionaire who made his money in oil and gas exploration and also co-founded polling firm YouGov, is often chosen by Number 10 to represent the Government on particularly difficult morning media rounds.
He is viewed by the Government as a safe pair of hands and is frequently sent out to face the broadcasters on days when ministers are under fire.
However, he has suffered a number of missteps in recent months, particularly after he claimed that struggling parents would rather pay for meals for their children than accept the ‘label’ attached to handouts.
The 53-year-old married father-of-three has been in Parliament as the MP for Stratford on Avon since 2010 but he had a long wait to begin his ministerial career.
He was first elevated to the Tory frontbench in 2018 under Theresa May as a junior minister at the Department for Education.
He was then moved to BEIS when Boris Johnson became PM back in July last year and he has been widely tipped for a much bigger ministerial role in the near future.
Mr Zahawi was born in Baghdad, Iraq, and moved to the UK at the age of nine.
The Government is facing growing calls to retreat over its refusal to extend the free school meals programme to future holidays.
Campaigners, led by Mr Rashford, argue the extension is needed because many families have been left struggling financially because of the coronavirus crisis.
But the Government is so far refusing to give any ground and has instead opted to point to help and funding that is already in place.
Mr Osborne said today that Mr Rashford had already ‘nutmegged the British state once’ by forcing ministers to extend the meals to school holidays earlier this year.
The former Tory MP said the Government had therefore ‘set the precedent’ which it will not be able to get away from.
Mr Osborne argued if the food vouchers were ‘justified at Easter, and then again in the summer (thanks to Rashford), how can they not be justified at Christmas?’.
Writing in the Evening Standard, he said: ‘With Tory MPs getting nervy, another Government U-turn is inevitable.
‘We’ll see if it comes in the form of food vouchers, new school holiday clubs or as a large bung to councils.
‘This Downing Street team came into office saying they were much smarter than their predecessors, and wouldn’t make the mistake of chasing headlines. That’s a bold claim.
‘But their ministers have been made to look like a school yard football team, all running in a panic after the ball — until a professional came onto the pitch and put it into the back of their net.’
Mr Osborne said the Government needed to ‘realise that it’s game over’.
Earlier Mr Zahawi had risked a backlash as he told Sky News this morning: ‘The best way to deal with this is through both local government and through the welfare system and that is the right thing to do.
‘We have run a pilot costing £9million this summer, feeding 50,000 children, we will take the learning from that.
‘It is not just about the food. As I said, I spoke to Carol Shanahan in Stoke on Trent [the chairman of Port Vale Football Club], she tells me that in wards where families want to keep their children safe during those activities they also appreciate the food but more important than the food to them was the activities for their children.’
Mr Zahawi’s comments come after he last week insisted struggling parents would rather pay for meals for their children than accept the ‘label’ attached to handouts.
The minister, who co-founded the YouGov polling firm, said Universal Credit benefits were available to support hard-pressed families and suggested research from holiday clubs showed parents prefer to pay a small sum for food.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The research when we did the pilot demonstrates that families didn’t just want the meals.
‘Although they valued the meals, they didn’t like the labelling of them being free. They actually prefer to pay a modest amount, £1 or £2.’
It came as Mr Mellen accused the Government of failing to live up to its promises on funding to tackle child poverty.
He told Sky News: ‘The Government has given a shortfall in council funding over many years, 10 years of reductions.
‘They promised at the beginning of this year that they would stand shoulder to shoulder with us and meet the needs of our Covid costs and our lost income.
‘We are still several tens of millions short on that promise.
Rishi Sunak and Gavin Williamson locked in blame game over free school meals
Rishi Sunak and Gavin Williamson are locked in a bitter blame game over the Government’s refusal to extend the free school meals programme as Treasury sources claimed the Education Secretary had not asked for extra funding.
It was reported over the weekend that the Treasury had blocked the £20 million per week needed to roll out the scheme to cover future school holidays.
But the suggestion that Mr Sunak was guilty of ‘parking the Treasury bus’ has prompted a furious response from the Chancellor’s allies who suspect Mr Williamson’s supporters may have briefed the story.
Allies of Mr Sunak said it was impossible for the Treasury to have blocked the funding as they claimed Mr Williamson had not put in a bid for the cash to be made available.
‘I am not convinced that the Government are not double-counting here on the money that they are saying that we already have to meet this need.’
He added: ‘They do that quite often.’
The Prime Minister insisted yesterday the Government would not allow children to go hungry but he refused to bow to demands to extend free school meals.
Mr Johnson highlighted the money already given to councils and said Universal Credit was ‘one of the best ways you can help families in this tough time’.
The Government has increased Universal Credit payments by £20 per week during the pandemic but that increase is due to be scrapped in April next year.
Tory MPs are now calling on ministers to keep the increase in place for longer as they also said the Government should simply U-turn now on free school meals.
Former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb said the Government should have conceded on the issue last week.
‘I think the Government should just deal with this head on, concede on the issue of vouchers but say very clearly and firmly that vouchers at best are not a long-term solution,’ he said.
Mr Crabb said the Government has created a political problem with ministers talking up the role of Universal Credit.
He said the fact it is a temporary increase is in ‘the small print’, adding: ‘We are on course to cut that money back in just a few months time and for me that’s just unconscionable.
‘You can’t give money to some of the poorest people in the country and then go out publicly and celebrate that fact and then say “oh by the way, even though we may still be living with the consequences of the pandemic next April we are going to cut that money back by around £20 per week, £100 per month”.
‘And that’s going to be a much bigger headache for the Government than school meals.’