Ingram Pinn illustration of Phillip Stephens column ‘Marcus Rashford has a lesson for politicians everywhere’
© Ingram Pinn/Financial Times Rashford

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Marcus Rashford is a talented young football player who, on the cusp of his 23rd birthday, earns more than most people ever dream of. As a Chelsea supporter, I feel obliged to point out that the Manchester United and England goalscorer has chosen to play for the wrong team. Mr Rashford, though, can be forgiven most things. 

His campaign to guarantee the most deprived children in the UK at least one decent meal every day when schools are closed has gathered wide public support and mobilised local communities, businesses and politicians. A petition calling on Boris Johnson’s government to underwrite the costs for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic has attracted more than 1m signatures within two weeks.

The prime minister has so far said no. When Mr Rashford proposed the scheme earlier this year, Mr Johnson initially opposed it, but eventually provided public funds for lunch vouchers during the summer holiday. To signal there were no hard feelings, the young footballer was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s birthday honours list.

Inexplicably, Mr Johnson has now rejected an extension during the present half-term holiday and again during the Christmas break. He says that higher welfare payments from central government and the grants distributed by local councils already cover the additional costs faced by poor families when schools are closed. About 1.3m children in England claimed free term-time meals in 2019. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the numbers are each below 200,000, are already providing free meals during the holidays.

In the desiccated mindset of Whitehall beancounters it doubtless seems reasonable to add up all the additional public money disbursed during the Covid-19 outbreak and say that it includes enough to feed the children of the poor. The Treasury lives in perpetual fear of precedents — once extended, it warns, a new free meals scheme would be hard ever to scrap.

Even if such arguments have intrinsic merit — and many would question the Treasury's numbers as well as its heartlessness — framing the argument in such terms misses completely the point. Against the hundreds of billions of pounds spent to soften the blow of the pandemic to the economy, the addition sought by Mr Rashford — counted in tens of millions — is trivial.

Above all, and this is what has given the campaign such resonance, even for many of Mr Johnson’s own MPs, it seems blindingly obvious that, whatever the costs of Covid-19, children from poor families should not be going hungry.

It helps that Mr Rashford has made his case with an intelligence and grace that shames day-to-day political discourse at Westminster. Eschewing name-calling, the young footballer has what is often called “class”. His appeal also comes with a back story. Brought up in a poor area of Manchester, Mr Rashford has personal experience of deprivation. Wind forward and it does his cause no harm that his skills on the football field have now furnished him with an army of social media followers.

The real force of the appeal, however, resides in the simple fact that it harnesses the most powerful, elemental of values: a sense of fairness. Liberal democracies hold dear all sorts of values and norms — individual freedom, equality before the law, tolerance, respect for diversity among them. The essential binding thread, however, is fair play. 

Citizens can put up with hardship, they mostly view equality as a distant aspiration, and they will argue about the balance between liberty and the state. Governments are allowed to do stupid things. But woe betide politicians who offend the voters’ perception of fairness.

Mr Johnson’s government might have learnt this from the backlash against the then Conservative government’s austerity programme in response to the 2008 financial crisis. George Osborne, then chancellor, paid lip-service to fairness with the slogan “we are all in this together”. It was a political smokescreen for deep cuts in public spending and much smaller increases in taxation that loaded the burden of austerity on to the less affluent. They paid for the catastrophic mistakes of bankers, regulators and politicians, who escaped barely scathed.

This pattern was repeated in varying measure across rich democracies as governments repaired their balance sheets, providing ammunition for the populist demagogues poised to exploit public discontent. Extremists of right and left were quick to spot the short distance between “unfairness” and a world redefined as a fight between “them and us”. Donald Trump in the US and the Brexiters in the UK were among the beneficiaries.

Voters will look through the same lens when governments come to repair the fiscal damage done by Covid-19. They can probably be persuaded to support public spending restraint and tax rises. But only if the measures are even-handed. Does the heaviest burden fall on the broadest shoulders? Or are poor children expected to go hungry?

Mr Johnson’s governing record thus far is one of mishap followed by mis-step and misjudgement. Without a clear-out of his Downing Street advisers and the radical recasting of his cabinet, his premiership is probably irrecoverable. More reason he should take the advice of a young footballer and apply a simple test to each of the government’s decisions. Is it fair?

Follow Philip Stephens with myFT and on Twitter

Letter in response to this column:

Johnson needs to do his sums on school meals / From Dhruv Narayanan, London, EC4, UK


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