WHY RASHFORD GETS IT, AND JOHNSON DOESN'T

It wasn’t Hallowe’en, but that didn’t stop her being pure dead scary. Interviewing the late Margaret Hilda Thatcher was not for the faint hearted journalist. Especially when you were ushered into the presence to find a small phalanx of minders on hand to take notes of your notes. Nor did it help that she was turned out like the front cover of one of those early women’s magazines where the raciest invitation was to knit your hot water bottle cover. (Knitting your own orgasm came along very much later.)

At that stage, the future Tory leader had acquired a very particular kind of notoriety. Having cancelled free school milk, she became, ever after, “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.” So for some of us, this last week has been something of a déjà vu moment as her successors voted down a plan to keep school meals available in England over their upcoming half term holidays and the Christmas break. Measures already taken in Scotland and Wales with Easter thrown in. As the FM observed, some of the alibis advanced by today’s Tory troops were totally jaw dropping. Notably the assertion from Ben Bradley MP that the food parcels or vouchers handed to hungry weans were being exchanged for illegal drugs down the local back alley. (Or, watch your pearls there Penelope, funnelled to brothels.)

Aye, right. There’s nothing like tinned soup and packets of pasta to light up the eyes of the local heroin dispenser. Bradley’s hoppo, Mark Jenkinson MP, then did his cavalry number. Whilst admitting only a tiny minority might have been so involved, he also suggested that in his constituency food parcels had been traded for drugs. Difficult to follow his absolute logic here. A bit like suggesting that if the bloke at number 20 is caught driving over the limit, everyone in the street should have their cars confiscated.

Neither of these shameless amateur sociologists seem to have digested the Denis Healey dictum that the safest posture when already in a crater is to dispense with the shovel as swiftly as can be decently managed. Not at all strangely, despite being invited by Channel 4 News among others, nobody from this self appointed morality police has managed to offer a sliver of actual evidence.

Then enter, stage right, a third “outraged Tunbridge Wells,” except to say that Selaine Saxby MP sits for North Devon. In a tweet she wisely later deleted, she offered up the hope that none of the companies foolish enough to be feeding bairns with free food would then be asking for any business bailouts.

It was left to a 22 year old footballer with vivid memories of boyhood hunger pangs, to show several ounces of the humanity this government of the wealthy for the wealthy serially lacks. Marcus Rashford and his mum were working at a local foodbank named for that single parent when word of his pleas for free school meals extensions went hurtling round social media outlets.

Cue local businesses and councils up and down that green and not always very pleasant land, to step in with promises of help. Enough promises to have shamed any normal human with a functioning heart. But not this lot. The hapless Gavin Williamson, who seems to have been put on this earth to prove that Chris Grayling was not the most incompetent minister known to mankind, was wheeled into the Commons. Whereupon he assured the nation that various schemes including universal credit were there to make sure nobody need go hungry.

You might insert a wry chuckle at this point were it not interfering with you weeping. As has been pointed out many times, even a heavily subsidised steak meal in the Commons would gobble up 15 per cent of your jobseekers allowance. Not that “let them eat steak,” is much of a vote winner in any constituency outside London W1. Plus you might reasonably ponder why someone on eighty grand plus a year is in need of cut price victuals out of the public kitty.

Yet what makes this whole sorry saga so utterly unforgiveable is the billions which, as the PM might put it, has been spaffed up the wall, giving lucrative contracts to companies whose incompetence in the matter of outsourced government business is legendary. Or who set up a company a couple of weeks back with no track record at all in the sub contracted matter at hand.  Serco and track and trace being the most obvious marriage made in fiscal hell.

It is my fervent hope that we are never too deep in Covid and Brexit doo doo to forget that the pandemic has been used as a handy cover for some truly, gobsmackingly dodgy deals. Fat contracts handed out by the UK government to feather some pretty unsavoury nests, unencumbered by anything so old school as transparent tendering. How many “world class” failures have those billions now paid for? The Taxpayers Alliance, usually on the case whenever it thinks someone might have defrauded the exchequer out of a couple of quids worth of benefit money, has apparently been stuck completely dumb at this large scale larceny.

As we know, at any of the rallies where President Trump lectures the faithful on what a superstar he is, he can always get a cheap laugh mocking the weak or physically disabled. When he does, our jaws do indeed drop at the sheer absence of anything resembling common decency. How could they elect such a self serving monster, we mutter to ourselves.

Well Boris Johnson is not Donald Trump. Yet he shares many of his more unlovely characteristics. The sense of absolute entitlement. The belief that rules are only for the little people. And the conviction that if folks are poor it can only be their own inadequacy at fault.

This week we have had further evidence of what really makes people poor. And hungry. And dispirited. It’s a government which self evidently gives not the smallest toss who suffers as a result of ministerial callousness. Hell mend them. #timetogo.

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE NATIONAL