United Kingdom

SARAH VINE: How could No10 let free school meals turn into a dog's dinner?

Malcolm Tucker, No 10's brutal chief adviser in the TV satire The Thick Of It, would no doubt have a colourful word to describe the way the Government has handled the Marcus Rashford/free school meals debacle.

But this is a family newspaper, so let's just call it a complete and utter disaster. An embarrassing own goal.

Short of drowning a basket of puppies live on air, I can't think of a worse communications fail.

Don't get me wrong: I understand the frustrations of Ministers who feel very strongly that policies should not be dictated by vacuous celebrities. Also, that government should never be bounced into doing things just because someone with a lot of Twitter followers says it should. That is generally a wise principle.

Malcolm Tucker (left, played by Peter Capaldi) , No 10's brutal chief adviser in the TV satire The Thick Of It, would no doubt have a colourful word to describe the way the Government has handled the Marcus Rashford (right)/free school meals debacle

When it comes to child poverty and free school meals, Marcus Rashford (above) is not just any celebrity. He is someone who has credibility in this area of debate

But when it comes to child poverty and free school meals, Marcus Rashford is not just any celebrity. He is someone who has credibility in this area of debate – a sincere young man who understands the issues from his own experience and who is trying in a dignified way to bring them to the fore.

Indeed, he represents the sort of values that the Conservative Party – for me, at least – has always stood for. Self-determination, dedication – and a desire to get ahead in life through hard work and diligence.

His mother, by all accounts a formidable woman with a solid moral compass that her boy has inherited, held down three jobs so that he could fulfil his dream of becoming a professional footballer.

Neither could be further from the cliche of the grabby benefit scrounger. Indeed, both are examples of how social and economic assistance (Rashford received free school meals himself as a youngster) can provide the necessary tools to lift people out of poverty and not be a burden on the taxpayer.

These are principles at the heart of One Nation Conservatism.

Rashford represents the sort of values that the Conservative Party – for me, at least – has always stood for. Self-determination, dedication – and a desire to get ahead in life through hard work and diligence

The cherry on this omnishambles of a cake was McDonald's pledging a million meals. When a fast-food chain makes you look like the bad guy, you know you're in serious trouble. And the worst part? Food poverty is an issue that Ministers have been taking serious steps to tackle

So you would have thought this Government would have leapt at the chance to have Rashford on its team. A young role model who, rather than wasting his time and money on cheap girls and expensive cars, helps out at food banks.

But no. Last week it dug in its heels over his call for free school meals to be extended over half-term. 

   

More from Sarah Vine for the Daily Mail...

In turn, this led to the deeply unedifying spectacle of MPs hurling insults at each other and the Tories being accused of saying that free school meals went to 'crack dens and brothels' (not what was said at all, but that was how Labour successfully spun it).

And as if that wasn't bad enough, local councils joined in – mostly Labour, but also some Tory ones – saying that if Ministers wouldn't step in to feed hungry children, they would.

At which point private businesses jumped on the bandwagon, also donating free food.

The cherry on this omnishambles of a cake was McDonald's pledging a million meals.

When a fast-food chain makes you look like the bad guy, you know you're in serious trouble. And the worst part? Food poverty is an issue that Ministers have been taking serious steps to tackle.

The Government recently published an in-depth report called the National Food Strategy. Authored by Henry Dimbleby, it pulls no punches, acknowledging the scale of the challenge and highlighting the damaging impact of poor nutrition on life outcomes.

Like Rashford, Dimbleby has striven to rise above tribal politics to focus on children. If implemented, his recommendations would go a long way to improving the lives of poorer families, not only stopping any child going hungry but also making sure that all future Marcus Rashfords get their chance in life.

If the Government won't listen to Rashford, it should at least listen to Dimbleby. Because this is not a problem that is going away any time soon.

The thinking woman's thesp thaws Wintour 

Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, one of the most feared women on the planet, is said to have found love with the thinking woman's thespian, Bill Nighy. 

A case of The Devil Dates RADA?

Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, one of the most feared women on the planet, is said to have found love with the thinking woman's thespian, Bill Nighy

There is much that is baffling about the lockdown rules, but one of the most baffling things is the closure of soft play centres. 

Little children don't spread the virus – but more to the point, do members of SAGE not recall the sheer misery of trying to entertain a hyperactive toddler on a rainy afternoon? 

Sometimes a ball pool is all that stands between sanity and the abyss.

Far be it for me to argue with Obergruppenfuhrer Mark Drakeford, Wales's First Minister. But who is he to decide what constitutes an essential item and what does not? In our house, for example, my daughter's list of absolute necessities would include eyelash glue, whereas her brother, being 15, would probably argue for batteries (for his Xbox controller). Me? Pink wine and dark chocolate. Or maybe vodka. Or maybe both. 

As Sadiq Khan continues to shift the blame for his own incompetence on to central government, it may be worth reminding ourselves that Transport for London has over 500 employees who earn more than £100,000 a year. Indeed, its former boss earned £508,301 last year, including a bonus of £133,586. A staggering sum for an organisation facing bankruptcy.

For her own sake, I wish Ulrika Jonsson hadn't posted a cryptic selfie hours after her ex-boyfriend John Leslie was cleared in court of groping a woman at a party. If she was hinting at something, she should come out and say it. If not, then enough. This is someone's life, not a B-list celebrity gameshow.

£215,000 is a piece of cake for Gateau 

The Arts Council, in its wisdom, has awarded £215,000 to drag artist Le Gateau Chocolat (aka George Ikediashi, who describes himself as 'fat, black and bearded'). Just goes to show: tick all the right boxes and you really can have your gateau and eat it.

David Hare's TV drama Roadkill, starring Hugh Laurie, is about a Tory Minister with a few unpopular Right-wing views and one or two skeletons in the closet who doesn't get on as well as he should with a bossy, prissy female Prime Minister. For some reason my husband is absolutely gripped.

Gyles Brandreth's new oeuvre, The Oxford Book Of Theatrical Anecdotes, is a luvvie's delight. One of my favourites is when he invited Sir John Gielgud to lunch at the Commons for the actor's 90th birthday. 'It's a great honour that you should join us,' says Brandreth. 'Oh, I'm delighted to have been asked,' replies Gielgud. 'All my real friends are dead.'

What fresh hell is this? 

Sad to see that the Cubbington Pear Tree, a 250-year-old specimen, has been felled to make way for HS2. 

A beautiful ancient tree, gone so that people can shave 20 minutes – maybe − off their journey between London and Birmingham. So much for progress.

Sad to see that the Cubbington Pear Tree, a 250-year-old specimen, has been felled to make way for HS2

'Loved ones will die' if people insist on joining their families at Christmas, warns Professor Neil Ferguson. Presumably – as the man who famously broke lockdown rules to see his married lover – he does not include mistresses.

If women ruled the world...

Maureen 'I don't give a sod about lockdown' Eames, from Barnsley, reflects the views of many others of the older generation who are, ironically, the most vulnerable to Covid.

As the mother of a friend of mine, who's also in her 80s, put it: 'I've had my fun, I don't want to spoil it for everyone else.'

Having grown up in the shadow of the war, such folk seem to have an instinctive understanding of the brutal realities of life – and death. Perhaps it's time we started listening.

Football news:

Instagram instagram post: Cavani can be banned for 3 matches for saying Negrito
Roy Keane: Tottenham's Players are not good enough to take the title
Maradona's Doctor: There was no medical error. I did everything I could
Milan will discuss the future of Braim Diaz with Real Madrid in the coming months
Goodbye, Dad Buba Diop. Thanks to you, I lived the most memorable tournament of my childhood
Nuno about 2:1 with Arsenal: We played amazing, very proud. Jimenez recovered
Arsenal scored 13 points in 10 opening matches - the worst result in 39 years