Boris Johnson Gets a Kicking From Rashford’s Meals Campaign

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Cafes, restaurants and local councils have rallied behind a campaign by England soccer star Marcus Rashford to give free meals to children from the poorest homes, in a show of defiance against Boris Johnson.

The U.K. prime minister rejected calls from Rashford and the opposition Labour Party this week to do more to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds to get a decent meal during the school holidays.

But the 22 year-old Manchester United and England star went ahead with his own Twitter campaign anyway, and more than 100 businesses, sports clubs and other groups had signed up by Friday afternoon -- including the Indian restaurant in Southampton where Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak used to work shifts as a waiter.

Rashford said he was “blown away” by the pledges. “Selflessness, kindness, togetherness, this is the England I know,” he tweeted.

For Johnson, the Rashford phenomenon is politically painful. It leaves the government at risk of looking mean and will further fuel worries among Conservative members of Parliament over the competence of his leadership.

On Friday, the premier’s official spokesman Jamie Davies repeatedly refused to give ground. He declined to say if the prime minister would praise businesses offering free meals to needy children.

Second Strike

It’s not the first time Johnson has found himself on the wrong end of a Rashford campaign. When the England striker led a drive to provide free meals for Britain’s poorest children over the summer break, the premier eventually bowed to public pressure and agreed.

But Johnson has refused to meet Rashford’s fresh demands for free school meals during next week’s half-term break and over the Christmas vacation. That led one of his own MPs to quit the government.

The row is now a major headache for the prime minister. After weeks of battling local leaders in the north of England over funding to help businesses and low-paid workers, infections are rising and a wave of unemployment is on the horizon.

Johnson’s team hoped a new government package of financial support for workers affected by covid restrictions would result in good headlines this week -- but Rashford’s campaign has dominated the front pages.

The Manchester United striker, whose family relied on free school meals when he was a child, had pleaded with MPs on Wednesday to back a motion from the opposition Labour party to offer free food for poor pupils during holidays until Easter 2021.

The motion was defeated by 322 votes to 261, with only five Conservative members of parliament choosing to vote against the government.

Social Education

Rashford said while he did not “have the education of a politician”, he had a “social education having lived through this.”

“These children matter,” he said in a statement. “And for as long as they don’t have a voice, they will have mine.”

Robert Halfon, a Tory MP and chair of parliament’s education committee, was one of those who voted against Johnson’s orders. He said it was the first time he had rebelled to back an opposition motion. “It was very difficult for me,” he said in an interview. “I didn’t sleep well the night before.”

“I felt I had to do it because we’re living through coronavirus -- 32% of families have had a significant drop in income during this, thousands and thousands of people have lost their jobs and livelihoods.”

Ministers have already spent billions of pounds on paying workers’ wages and more than 500 million pounds giving people discounted meals in restaurants, Halfon said. “Why is it O.K. for the state to do those things but when it comes to hungry children, we can’t help?”

He urged the government to sit down with Rashford’s task-force and “come up with a plan” to make sure low-income children are well fed throughout the holidays.

Welfare System

The government argued the extra support is not needed because it is already helping low-income families through the welfare system.

Rashford continued his campaign. He spent Friday telling his 3.6 million followers on Twitter where they could access free school meals during the half term holidays, as councils and cafes rushed to offer to help the poorest children during next week’s half-term break.

One shop in Nottingham, Farm Fresh U.K., offered a “cheese cob or vegan sausage roll” for every child who needs it, while Delphine Fish And Chips in Sheffield said any child is welcome next Tuesday to ask for a hot meal, piece of fruit and a drink.

The Poachers pub in Durham said it will prepare 30 meals per day to help those in need, and arts venue Royal and Derngate in Northampton will offer lunch bags all week.

McDonald’s Corp said it has joined with food charity FareShare -- part of Rashford’s child food poverty task-force -- to provide one million meals for families in need over the next two weeks.

Many councils are also now vowing to pay for meals, including the Conservative-led London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, which said almost 3,300 children would get vouchers worth 15 pound ($19.59) each.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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