Westminster Diary: How the Rashford effect changed government policy

The government has decided to extend free school meals over the summer holidays after increasing pre

The government has decided to extend free school meals over the summer holidays after increasing pressure from the likes of Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford. Picture: MIKE EGERTON/PA WIRE/PA IMAGES - Credit: PA

Welcome to my Westminster diary. Each week, I’ll be giving a behind-the-scenes take on what life is really like as a new MP. From jeering and bobbing, procedures and prayers, I’ll be lifting the lid on the mother of all Parliaments. Think ‘The Thick of It’ not ‘House of Cards’!

Normally, it is the government that is in charge of setting the parliamentary agenda. On just 20 days of the year opposition parties can choose a topic for debate. One of those ‘opposition days’ was this week and the outcome was not what was expected.

When the government has a “stonking” majority, opposition day motions never win. So opposition parties tend to use them to challenge or even embarrass the government on areas where they think they’re weak.

One notable exception was in 2009 when Bond girl and star of “Absolutely Fabulous” Joanna Lumley fronted a public campaign to provide all Gurkha veterans who served in the British Army before 1997 the right to settle in Britain. The official opposition chose the issue for debate, there was a backbench rebellion and the government was defeated.

This week felt strangely similar. On Monday night, 22-year-old Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford wrote a very powerful letter. He wrote of how, when growing up, his family had relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals, food banks, soup kitchens, and the kind actions of neighbours. He did so because, two weeks previously, the government had announced that it would not run the free school meals voucher system for low-income families over the summer holiday period.

He tweeted his ‘open letter’ and asked the public to ‘tag their MP’ on Twitter. Thousands of people did – more than 300,000 in fact. The next day, the official opposition chose the topic for their debate.

There was a flurry of activity. The government was primed to oppose the motion but was suddenly facing a small rebellion from within its own ranks – not enough to lose the vote but enough for it to be deeply embarrassing.

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I hopped on the train to London to make sure I could vote for the scheme to be extended. By the time I’d arrived, the government had performed a U-turn and confirmed they wouldn’t oppose the motion after all, meaning there wouldn’t be any vote on the issue. I stepped off the train, smiled to myself under my mask, and then got straight back on a train to St Albans.

A small inconvenience for an extraordinarily important win.

You can contact Daisy at daisy.cooper.mp@parliament.uk