Boris Johnson Is Outplayed Again by a 23-Year-Old

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The Covid-19 pandemic has seen a series of clashes in the U.K. between Boris Johnson and a bighearted 23-year-old soccer star called Marcus Rashford who campaigns to end child poverty. There’s only ever one winner in a sporting contest — and it’s not the prime minister this time, even with an 80-strong Conservative majority in the House of Commons.

Johnson has joked that Rashford is a more effective opposition leader than Labour’s Keir Starmer. He should ask himself why.  

Rashford’s skills with a ball may earn him millions as a goal scorer for Manchester United and England but the local boy has stayed close to his roots in the poorer parts of the northern city where his club is based. Although his single mother worked hard in a series of low-wage jobs to provide for her family, it was free school meals and food banks that kept the wolf from the door.

Soccer players are often caricatured in Britain’s tabloid newspapers as selfish, overpaid narcissists. Sometimes they deserve the flak. But Rashford is an admirable example of upward social mobility with a social conscience. Conservatives should celebrate him as a beacon for aspirational values.

When the English football season was put into lockdown last year, Rashford assembled a team to advise him on homelessness and child hunger. That puts him one step ahead of a government that has hardly been ungenerous to disadvantaged Britons during the epidemic — tens of billions of pounds have been spent to maintain living standards — but has failed to frame the debate on welfare and child poverty. If the Tories won’t, then Rashford and others will do it for them. Johnson’s party will be left with its old reputation for heartlessness, hardly ideal for a prime minister elected on a promise to “level up” working class communities. 

Last June, Rashford successfully roused voters, the media and members of Parliament to persuade the government to change its mind on ending a free school meal scheme for poor children during the summer holidays. Ministers huffed and puffed, while the Treasury pronounced that the bounty was unaffordable. Then Johnson gave in. The footballer intervened again in the autumn, when he asked for another extension of free meals. Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak threatened that taxes would have to go up to pay for it. But the prime minister folded once more when it became clear that popular opinion was with Rashford.

The sums involved in putting food on the table for poor children are negligible in comparison to the billions spent (and too often wasted) elsewhere. Rashford only asked for an extra 40 million pounds ($55 million) and got considerably more. Taxpayers approve. The political costs to the government of repeatedly appearing to lack compassion for the vulnerable, however, are incalculable.

Even Margaret Thatcher, the toughest Tory of all them, spent years regretting her decision to end free milk for junior school children when she was education secretary in the 1970s. The epithet “Thatcher, Milk Snatcher” almost brought her career to a premature end. Later, when she became prime minister, one health minister proposed ending free milk for nursery children. She wrote him a note warning: “No — this will cause a terrible row — all for 4 million pounds. I know — I went through it 19 years ago.”

Rashford is back again, urging the government not to cut a Covid-linked temporary 20-pound increase in welfare payments for the low paid and unemployed that Sunak wants to end in March. It is, admittedly, a much more expensive program than free school meals, amounting to 6 billion pounds a year. 

Last week Conservatives MPs were ordered to abstain on a Labour motion opposing the cut. Six rebelled, including one — Robert Halfon — who’s an admired campaigner for poorer constituents. Few would bet against Johnson and Sunak yet again abandoning their red line late in the day, having gained the maximum opprobrium. 

Albert Einstein is attributed by some as saying insanity is making the same mistake repeatedly and expecting a different result. By that definition, the Tory leadership appears to have lost its political wits.

Right-of-center governments are expected to put the brakes on prodigal spending, but this time is different. The ravages of the virus are a national crisis, not unlike a war. In such an emergency it’s the government’s first duty to protect the health and welfare of its citizens. Now is not the time to be talking about balancing the books. The billions spent must be treated as a one-off expense separate from current spending. In her first major speech as Labour’s shadow chancellor, Anneliese Dodds pointed out that World War II spending in the form of long-term gilts was only paid off in 2006.

There is a respectable case for fiscal conservatives to make that the government mustn’t lose sight of the enormous bills it is running up (borrowing is expected to top 400 billion pounds this financial year). But this is the wrong moment. 

Even before the pandemic, a British Social Attitudes Survey found that 56% believed cutting benefits “would damage too many people’s lives.” So-called welfare “scroungers” are no longer a hot-button voter issue after years of austerity. The 20 pounds extra in Universal Credit payments only restores a cut made six years ago by another Tory chancellor, partly designed to embarrass a Cabinet enemy.

If 20 pounds is deducted from six million households in March, unemployment support would fall to its lowest real-terms level since 1992. Philippa Stroud, a Conservative welfare expert and member of the House of Lords, warns of the psychological and economic damage that would inflict on those who are only just coping.

Johnson’s instincts on these issues — he’s no natural skinflint, rather the reverse — are correct. He just needs to follow them. By now he should have gained the confidence to rule out the benefits cuts and tax rises demanded by an ultra-orthodox Treasury. The priority is to stimulate economic demand and protect basic living standards. For once Johnson should get ahead of the game, even if it’s one played more skillfully by Rashford.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

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