There is no one vignette about the government’s handling of the pandemic that “says it all”, but there will always be a broken place in my heart for the fact that at the end of the first lockdown, the government opened the pubs before the schools. Hey, give the Johnson administration a break. They’d only had three and a half months to think about it, which the likes of Gavin Williamson had instead spent not thinking about how to handle the looming exam results fiasco.
Whether ministers will make more humane and intelligent choices this time round for the millions of children in various stages of crisis is as yet tantalisingly unclear. The precedent set by their dealings with Marcus Rashford suggests that the government needs to make the same mistake many more times than an average primary school pupil before it learns.
And so to Rashford, whose success in forcing government U-turns is increasingly infuriating backbench Tory MPs – particularly those who represent the so-called red wall. From school meals to food “hampers” to, perhaps, the permanent universal credit top-up the footballer has endorsed, their frustration is broadly summarised by the question: why does the government keep losing against Marcus Rashford? Once the impossible has been eliminated, they might have to face the improbable truth that Rashford is simply better at it than them.
The government has found it so difficult to know how to play Rashford (for reasons that can only be guessed at) that they had largely settled into a rather excruciating form of sycophancy. On each of their unsuccessful outings against the Manchester United forward so far, ministers have fallen over themselves to “salute” him, to be “inspired” by him, and to judge he is doing “an incredible job”, at the same time as voting against said incredible job.
Last week the prime minister further formalised this admiration, declaring that in comparison with the Labour leader, Rashford was doing “quite an effective job ... in holding the government to account”. Johnson using his own Dickensian incompetence as the setup to some Westminster joke is certainly … innovative.
In private, however, there are reports that the false bonhomie is failing. The Tory MPs’ education WhatsApp group has lit up with discontent on both this issue and the continuing performance-art piece entitled “Gavin Williamson”. Several MPs are said to have accused the government of dancing to Rashford’s tune, or giving in to him, with the fact he is a millionaire footballer either mentioned disparagingly or in ways that suggest his success disqualifies him from speaking on the subject.
Well, now. It’s somewhat confusing to find Conservatives practising both the politics of envy and the politics that decries aspiration. Why do they hate football so much, given that the top flight of the game is an engine of social mobility that “levels up” a lot of talented and dedicated working-class men into millionaires? Perhaps the answer is in the question. It certainly can’t be that millionaires are, per se, the sort of people whom Conservative politicians believe shouldn’t be listened to. After all, huge swaths of Conservative policy have been formulated as a direct result of listening very hard to them; and over the past 10 months of the pandemic, huge numbers of incredibly lucrative private contracts have been outsourced to them.
In general, the Conservatives have always liked millionaires – and as long as they pay their taxes, why not? So what is it about Marcus Rashford that makes him the wrong kind of millionaire to be listened to? None of the possible answers to that question would seem to flatter his detractors.
It’s still notable that the only people any cabinet minister has chidingly suggested take a pay cut during this entire pandemic are Premier League footballers. Matt Hancock called for this back in April, of all bizarrely skewed priorities at the time. Oddly, he has since remained silent on the question of pay cuts for anyone from test-and-trace consultancies to health or education secretaries, all of whom have deserved a 100% pay cut at various times during the pandemic.
Maybe footballers have for so long been a lazy target for lazy politicians that the latter just can’t adapt their game. Consider the red wall MP who in October expressed frustration that Rashford was repeatedly out-strategising the government. As they put it: “Rashford is clearly a smart guy, but he’s not exactly fucking Clausewitz, is he?”
Interesting that this government should regard the Prussian general as a worthy foe, and not some 23-year-old part-timer whose day job is being extremely good at something else entirely. As the next U-turn percolates and an entire generation of children continues to be an afterthought, do enjoy the implication that Boris Johnson’s strategists might JUST lose honourably to Clausewitz. If they drew him away in the Cup, for instance – otherwise, his is very much the league in which they’re playing.
Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist