Boris Johnson’s handling of the situation over free school meals has been branded a “disaster” after Marcus Rashford’s petition hits one million signatories.
The Manchester United star’s mission to ensure no child goes hungry has gripped the nation and caused a major headache for the government who have opposed funding his campaign.
Tory peer Gavin Barwell, who served as Theresa May’s chief of staff, said Downing Street should have had the foresight to work out the row would escalate again after it was defused in the summer.
In a reference to his petition and his side’s 5-0 win against RB Leipzig on Wednesday evening, during which he scored a hat-trick, Rashford wrote on Twitter: “3 goals, 16 minutes, 1,030,000 signatures.
“Can’t stop smiling, I’ve waited a long time for that. Just wish the fans were in to experience it with me.”
Dozens of councils in England – many of them Tory-led – have taken matters into their own hands by paying for food out of their budgets, while hundreds of businesses have stepped up to help with the campaign.
Asked about the situation, former Tory MP Lord Barwell told ITV’s Peston: “Do I understand intellectually the policy argument that there might be a better way of dealing with the issue of children that are going hungry?
“Yes, I can understand that.
“But, politically… do I understand how the government has got itself into this situation? No.
“They got caught once with this over the summer holidays, it was obvious it was going to happen again.
“Now, to me, what’s most important at the moment is to try and avoid the usual, sort of, party political squabbling, we are in the middle of a national crisis and I think that the government has allowed this issue – it’s done it great damage, it’s a communications disaster.”
The government has insisted it is in the process of examining how holiday clubs could be used to feed hungry children, but said it had made provisions for families living in food poverty through increases in Universal Credit.