There are a few footballing metaphors around in politics right now thanks to Manchester United player Marcus Rashford’s school dinners campaign. Marcus Runs Rings Round Boris was one headline when he forced the prime minister to turn round and score an own goal – sorry, do a u-turn – by extending free school meals for children during the summer holidays, after previously refusing to do so. So it’s hard to resist writing that the 22-year-old striker is again on the ball and looking pretty threatening in the government’s penalty area.
His most recent attempt on goal, leading to a Commons vote that the government won with a majority of 61, certainly rattled the woodwork, and when he and his team mates at Old Trafford, to general acclaim, linked up with food charity FareShare to take lunches to vulnerable children during the October half term I reached the conclusion that this campaign is one red wall Johnson is unlikely to demolish. To use another footballing metaphor, Ashford’s campaign is a game of two halves, and it’s inconceivable that children from poor backgrounds will be sent home from school for the Christmas holidays without food vouchers.
That other red wall – those 24 Labour heartland seats lost to the Tories in last December’s general election – may well have crumbled, but the Tories’ appalling record not just on child food poverty but on Covid-19 and their arrogant one law for them and another for us mentality (I’m looking at you Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock) make me think these constituencies have already become rickety blue fences that will probably blow over in the first few gusts of Storm Keir.
Who would have thought a year ago that the Conservatives could so quickly make a hash of things? Actually, quite a lot of people. But watching the country being damaged and divided in this way should make no one feel smug.
I’d like a good old fashioned by-election right now in one of these red wall seats to give us some idea of the wind strength. Leigh in Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham’s parliamentary turf before being elected mayor, would be perfect. A Labour seat since 1922, James Grundy took it for the Conservatives with an almost 2,000 majority. However, his chances of doing so again have not been helped by publicly criticising Burnham for standing up to the government to win more financial aid for people and businesses hit by Tier 3 restrictions.
There are far more marginal red wall seats in places like Bury North, Bury South and Bolton North East (105, 402 and 378 majorities respectively) and it’s difficult to imagine these staying blue next time their voters visit polling stations.
Of course, the new red wall Tory MPs began to panic once it became clear the government’s inept response to Covid-19 was making the North-South divide even starker. More than 50 backbenchers with northern seats wrote to Johnson challenging him to provide a road map out of lockdowns and prioritise the north for recovery measures.
There are enough of them to cause real trouble but so far most have shown their true blue colours, for example by voting against the provision of free meals in school holidays. I’d love to hear them defend that on the doorstep at the next election.
Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe
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