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How populists become unpopular

How populists become unpopular

After Marcus Rashford’s campaign, the government may well U-turn – again – over free school meals. But why has it even come to that?

If “levelling up” means anything at all, it is that no child should go hungry. And yet Boris Johnson’s enthusiasm for his own slogan seems to be, to say the least, selective.

Big, shiny infrastructure, apparently, is fine. Ask the prime minister to build a bridge across the Irish Sea, or a rail link, or an airport bearing his name, and he will go weak at the knees and urge the Treasury to release billions of borrowed money.

Food for disadvantaged children? Not so much. It took the full campaigning force of Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford – who turns 23 on Saturday – to force the government into a U-turn in June to spend an estimated £126 million on free meals for disadvantaged pupils during the summer holidays.

To give you a sense of the scale of that fiscal adjustment: the Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast that the government was already on course to borrow £372 billion in 2020-21 – and that was before chancellor Rishi Sunak’s autumn package of emergency measures to address the economic impact of the second coronavirus wave.

In the greater scheme of things, the cost of the June U-turn was chicken-feed – and the public uproar in support of Rashford a clear enough signal to ministers about the mood of the country.

And yet the government dug in its heels last week, insisting that an extension of the food voucher scheme during the school holidays for 1.4 million children until Easter 2021 was a step too far. On Wednesday, the Commons shamefully voted down a measure supporting prolongation of the initiative by 322 to 261.

It has been suggested today that another climbdown of some sort is imminent, though its precise details have yet to be hammered out. Again, the retreat – if it takes place – will be the consequence not of principled deliberation but of overwhelming public, political and professional pressure.

At the time of writing, Rashford’s parliamentary petition to end child food poverty has almost 870,000 signatories. Over the weekend, a letter from more than 2,000 paediatricians was released, deploring the government’s position on the grounds that “one of our most basic human responsibilities is to ensure children have enough to eat”. Amazing, is it not, that medical practitioners should have to spell that out in 2021, in the sixth richest nation by GDP in the world?

Since Wednesday’s vote, Conservative MPs have started to experience what can only be called “Scrooge’s regret”. As Sir Bernard Jenkin, the chair of the House of Commons’ influential Liaison Committee put it to Sky’s Sophy Ridge: “I think we have to admit that we have misunderstood the mood of the country here.” Well, yes.

Whether or not Labour forces a second Commons vote on the matter, the government will give ground. The question that lurks beneath all this is: why has Johnson, the great communicator, been so tone deaf on what ought to have been a fairly straightforward matter?

Since 2016, Johnson and the Vote Leave team headed by Dominic Cummings – now rebranded as “Her Majesty’s Government” – have won a historically-significant referendum, installed their factional leader in Number 10, and secured a famous general election victory.

During the Brexit parliamentary row last year, they frequently postured as the voice of “the People” against what was then (pre-election) an obstructive House of Commons. But this is always a dangerous delusion.

It would be churlish to deny the campaigning genius of Cummings and Johnson. But individual electoral victories – defeating the tepid Remain campaign and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour – do not amount to a blank cheque from a tearfully grateful public. The fact is that populists, especially those who are electorally successful, tend to grow arrogant about matters of public emotion and opinion.

As Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s strategist, used to say, the horrendous volatility of modern politics requires a “daily mandate”. And lately, the only national figure winning one of those has been a 22-year-old footballer.

Worse, populists are often good at winning, but generally lousy at getting stuff done. It is in their nature, their political DNA, to over-promise and under-deliver.

True, Johnson’s election triumph secured the Commons majority necessary for the UK’s exit from the European Union on 31 January. But look at the unholy mess of the trade talks that have followed. Remember the A level grading fiasco in August. And consider the deepening disaster of the test-and-trace system. This government loves to pretend that the Cabinet Office is Nasa mission control in Houston. It just isn’t very good at launching rockets.

To explain such failures, the populist playbook depends upon the attribution of blame and the relentless identification of subversives: the “liberal elite”, judges, civil servants, lawyers, the BBC, refugees in dinghies, “the Blob” (a collective noun to describe groups of people who ask too many questions), “SW1” (a London postcode loathed by Cummings as the home of the media-political class), the EU, left-wing comedians, Extinction Rebellion “extremists”, and, most recently, exponents of critical race theory.

Such antagonists – imagined or otherwise – are as essential to governments like Johnson’s as Emmanuel Goldstein was to the Party in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Modern populism is about power, not progress. It is nourished by the claim that its noble purpose is constantly being thwarted by a wicked coalition of the seditious.

And – as we have seen in elections around the world – it’s amazing how far you can get with this approach, turbocharged by social media and state-of-the-art methods of mood manipulation. You can tell lies about just about anything in a tweet or on the side of a bus. You can talk nonsense or sow doubt about the economy, immigration, climate change.

What you can’t do is lie about the body. Hunger and disease are not matters of opinion: they fall into the category of what Nietzsche called “terrible forces”. Which is why the pandemic and (on a smaller scale but no less pointedly) child food poverty have caused this government to stumble so badly.

Yes, there are plenty of conspiracy theories about Covid-19. But they slide off the brute reality of 19,790 new cases a day, 151 deaths reported on Sunday, and 44,896 deaths recorded in the UK to date. You can’t blame immigrants for that, especially when it is those of immigrant heritage who are disproportionately dying from the virus.

And, at a time of national crisis, you can’t expect to withhold (frankly paltry) funds from hungry children and get away with it. Since the virus struck, around 1.9 million of them have been struck by what bureaucrats call “food insecurity”, but what is more accurately described as “the risk of starvation”.

Yet that has not stopped Ben Bradley, Tory MP for Mansfield, from tweeting that, over the summer, food vouchers “effectively” funded crack dens and brothels; or his Conservative colleague, Mark Jenkinson, from claiming that food parcels are “sold or traded for drugs”; or Selaine Saxby, MP for North Devon, from warning cafés and businesses that are stepping in to help provide food not to seek “any further government support”; or (most idiotically of all) Brendan Clarke-Smith, MP for Bassetlaw, from saying that he is against “nationalising children” – which is a curious way of dismissing the collective responsibility to make sure that they do not starve.

Leave aside for a moment the contemptible lack of basic decency reflected in these interventions. You have to ask: where did these people learn their trade? Who told them, as they were rising through the ranks, that it would make political sense to object to schemes for getting food to hungry children – hundreds of thousands of whom have parents who have lost or are about to lose their livelihoods?

In all this, I am reminded of Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau berating his Chinese assistant who attacks him randomly as a training measure: “Not now, Cato, you fool!”

There is certainly a calm, lengthy and strategic debate to be had about the complex space where the eradication of child poverty, public health policy and educational responsibility intersect. There are legitimate questions about the balance between central funding, town hall subsidy, and the extent to which the private and charitable sectors can help without letting the state off the hook. All this is worth discussing and disentangling and reviewing at length.

But not in the middle of a pandemic, eh?