Euan McColm: Red faces as yet another Tory tries to defend the indefensible

It is the last refuge of the idiot, a desperate attempt to salvage a reputation. Having said something colossally stupid or stomach-churningly cruel (or, often, a heady cocktail of both) a politician will insist that his words have been taken “out of context”.

Manchester United star Marcus Rashford

This, of course, is never so. In fact, when a politician plays the context card, we may be certain that, in fact, he has revealed his true character and then realised what a clanging mistake this was.

The latest MP to shout “context” and hope we excuse his awfulness is the Conservative member for Mansfield, Ben Bradley, who, late on Friday night made the reckless decision to mount a defence of his party’s decision to reject a Labour proposal to fund free meals during England’s half-term holidays for kids whose families are struggling, during the coronavirus pandemic, to get by.

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He tweeted that, in one school in his constituency, 75 per cent of kids have a social worker, while 25 per cent of parents are illiterate. One child, he added, lives in a crack den while another lives in a brothel. These were the children who needed help and extending free school meals wouldn’t do them any good. Colossally stupid? Tick. Stomach-churningly cruel? Also tick! But there was more.

MP Ben Bradley

In response to another Twitter user, Bradley wrote that free school meal vouchers issued south of the Border during the summer holidays had “effectively” sent money directly to crack dens and brothels.

By the time the deputy leader of the Labour Party, Angela Rayner, had - quite correctly - called out Bradley’s “disgraceful and disgusting” stigmatisation of working class families, he had sounded the context klaxon. What he had written was not what he had meant.

Unsurprisingly, a smattering of Tory MPs came to Bradley’s defence, attacking Rayner or, in one instance, urging Bradley to “hang tough” but it was too late. Bradley had given us an insight into the bubbling cess-pit that passes for his soul and it is to be hoped that his words will follow him for the rest of his career.

But let us put aside the awfulness of Bradley’s intervention and look at the politics of this issue. Let us hold up to the light and marvel at the ineptitude of a Conservative Government that seems perversely determined to ensure its time in power is as brief as it is chaotic.

When Prime Minister Boris Johnson led the Tories to a thwocking great victory in last December’s General Election, he did so with the backing of voters who - previously - had supported the Labour Party. Swathes of the North of England and the Midlands turned Conservative. Johnson had broken through the “red wall” on his way to Downing Street and our politics would never be the same again (In his Twitter biography, Bradley describes himself as the first blue “brick” in the red wall but we cannot be certain this is not a typo.)

Those red wall voters are among the people now suffering most during the pandemic. They are not the scroungers of tabloid caricature but people facing spirit-sapping financial insecurity, worried about their jobs and their homes.

When the footballer Marcus Rashford, a 22-year-old for whom free school meals were essential growing up, began campaigning for the government to extend the benefit beyond term times, here was an opportunity not only for the UK Government to do the right thing but to do something politically-savvy. Had the Tories agreed with the proposal - which would have cost £21million-a-week - they might have helped cement those blue bricks in that once-red wall. In the scheme of things, this is a piddling sum and would have represented excellent value for money for a Government looking to secure its position.

Instead, the Conservatives appear to be living up to their reputation for being heartless and out-of-touch. Even Nigel Farage attacked them for being mean and wrong and when the former UKIP leader reckons you’re mean and wrong, you’ve got a problem. There’s not much he doesn’t know about being mean and wrong, after all.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Boris Johnson and those around him are just not very good at politics. Before the free meals debacle, the Prime Minister had come off worse in a clash with Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham over funding for the region during the pandemic. Johnson had played the tough guy and ended up looking heartless, as if he didn’t care about the impact of lockdown restrictions on the worst off.

The smart - if cynical - politician would have realised that extending free school meals to cover holiday times would have gone a long way to repairing the reputational damage caused by the row with Burnham. Instead, Johnson chose to compound his problems and to risk the support of those who loaned his party their votes last year.

We should not be surprised if the UK Government has a change of heart over this issue in the days ahead. But any U-turn will not tell a story of compassion but of a party driven to act in its own interests rather than those of voters.

The winners are Labour in England and the SNP in Scotland. Boris Johnson is writing their attack lines for them.

While idiots like Ben Bradley flounder around, trying to defend the indefensible, the Prime Minister looks ever more out-of-touch with the people he so assiduously wooed last year. He is the middle of yet another another crisis of his own creation and he should not be surprised if voters ask themselves whether they were sold a pup, whether Johnson isn't a new kind of Tory but the worst kind of old one.

We turned the clocks back this weekend. Boris Johnson appears to have set his for 1979.

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