LONDON — Is Marcus Rashford Boris Johnson’s most dangerous political rival?
While the British prime minister has faced accusations of fomenting divisions this week with his COVID-19 strategy, the Manchester United and England footballer — still a few days shy of his 23rd birthday — has demonstrated a remarkable gift for bringing people together.
Thwarted in his campaign for the government to extend the provision of free meals for England’s poorest children into the school holidays, Rashford has encouraged people around the country to take matters into their own hands.
On Thursday evening, his Twitter feed (3.5 million followers, to Johnson’s 3 million) started sharing social media posts from cafés, takeaways, shops and other outlets across England pledging free meals to children during next week’s half-term holidays — in defiance of the government’s decision not to.
In 67 tweets so far (and counting), he’s drawn attention to an Italian restaurant in Devon offering free pasta lunches, an Indian restaurant in Staffordshire that has invited local people to get in touch privately if they’re struggling to put food on the table and a bakery in County Durham offering complimentary packed lunches for kids. In each, Rashford has tweeted a location marker, highlighting the geographical spread of the uprising of kindness.
In a week when the government has been accused of treating Rashford’s home city of Manchester with contempt — it has been under stricter coronavirus measures than most of the country for three months, but only this week did the government set out a more generous (national) package of support for businesses and workers hit by restrictions — it’s a powerful message of local activism that appears designed to shame the government into action.
Some local authorities have now got in on the act, with Liverpool Council the latest to confirm it would provide holiday food vouchers for children in receipt of free school meals.
The government argues that its top-ups to social security payments during the pandemic have already helped the country’s least well-off families afford to put food on the table. But the take of some Conservative politicians, including Mansfield MP Ben Bradley, who argued that extending free school meals into the holidays “increases dependency,” prompted a call from Rashford for a more “humane response.”
“Blown away by news of local businesses stepping up to fill the voucher scheme deficit during the October half term. Selflessness, kindness, togetherness, this is the England I know,” Rashford said.
In the summer, Rashford triggered a government U-turn with a similar campaign, with Johnson announcing that the food voucher scheme, originally introduced in March amid the first wave of the pandemic, would be extended through the summer holidays.
On Wednesday, however, Conservative MPs voted down a Labour Party motion backing Rashford’s renewed campaign.
After the vote — and after being taken to task on social media by Bradley and other Tory MPs — the footballer, who is backed by a coalition of charities and supermarkets called the Child Food Poverty Taskforce, tweeted a message that any political speech-writer would have been proud of.
“This is not politics, this is humanity,” he wrote. “I don’t have the education of a politician, many on Twitter have made that clear today, but I have a social education having lived through this and having spent time with families and children most affected.”
Benedict Pringle, a political advertising specialist at creative agency The&Partnership, said the campaign had been “incredibly impressive … He’s used a combination of well-articulated lived experience with robust research findings to make his case for social justice feel both relatable and unarguable.”
For many, the spectacle of a COVID-weary country uniting behind a popular young footballer — who also happens to be a canny political campaigner — to help poor kids get a good meal has been inspiring.
For Downing Street, it’s politically toxic.