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26 October 2020

Will the government U-turn over free school meals?

Ministers are looking for a way to backtrack without handing the opposition a win or raising Universal Credit. 

By Stephen Bush

What connects the Chelsea coach Frank Lampard and Boris Johnson? They’re both identified with the colour blue, went to private school and are trying to find a way to contain Marcus Rashford. There is one important difference, however: Lampard managed it. 

Downing Street is under pressure to U-turn on their decision to oppose the extension of free school meals over the half-term holidays in time for Christmas, after Conservative MPs faced a backlash from voters over the weekend. 

The government is keen for a way to U-turn on the issue without either a) handing Keir Starmer the direct win of just doing it his way and b) protecting the political project of keeping Universal Credit fairly low (the easiest and quickest way to tackle the problem of poverty would simply be to boost Univeral Credit, or if you are after something more voter-friendly, to tack on a half-term bonus for parents and a more generous Christmas bonus for everybody). 

Trouble is, it’s hard to find a policy that doesn’t tick one of those boxes (and indeed done in the wrong way, you tick both). In practice, I suspect that if you end up in the right place, people don’t care all that much about U-turns provided they aren’t left with the impression you are incompetent and/or heartless. Boris Johnson’s government runs the risk of leaving the impression they are both: but not because of any one U-turn, but because they have made so many. 

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