Tory 'blackmail': Oppose free school meals or deprived pupils lose funds, MPs told

20 January 2022, 18:27

The Government threatened MPs with withholding funding over the free school meal row with Marcus Rashford
The Government threatened MPs with withholding funding over the free school meal row with Marcus Rashford. Picture: Alamy

By Ben Kentish

Members of the government threatened to withhold funding for schools in deprived constituencies unless Tory MPs voted against extending free school meals.

Senior government figures warned Conservative MPs at the height of a row between ministers and Marcus Rashford that the funding was at risk if they went ahead and voted for a Labour plan to extend the meal vouchers.

The warning came in the days leading up to a crunch vote in October 2020 on a motion put forward by Sir Keir Starmer's party that called for free school meals to be provided to children from disadvantaged backgrounds over the Christmas holiday.

A number of Tory MPs were considering voting for the Labour motion and against the government, which at the time was opposing the extension of free school meals – leading to an aggressive whipping operation from ministers and government whips.

Read more: Boris: 'No evidence of blackmail' after Tory urges MPs to report threats to police

Some MPs who were thinking of rebelling told LBC that they had been warned that their constituencies would see investment in education withdrawn if they went ahead and backed the Labour motion. Only 5 eventually rebelled and voted with Labour.

The Government later U-turned and, following conversations between Boris Johnson and Mr Rashford, decided to extend the vouchers.

The use of such tactics by government figures was alleged by former Tory MP Christian Wakeford, who defected to Labour on Wednesday.

He told BBC North West: "I was threatened that I would not get the school for Radcliffe if I did not vote in one particular way.

"This is a town that's not had a high school for the best part of 10 years.

"How would you feel when holding back regeneration of a town for a vote? It didn't sit comfortably.

"That was really starting to question my place where I was and ultimately to where I am now."

Read more: James O'Brien: PM is top of a pyramid 'infected' with his contempt for the rules

It is not clear whether this was in relation to the vote on free school meals or a different matter.

It comes after senior Tory backbencher William Wragg accused the government of "blackmail" against MPs trying to oust Boris Johnson as leader.

He urged MPs to report any such threats to the police, but Boris Johnson insisted he had not seen any evidence over the allegations.

Mr Johnson told LBC's reporter Tom Seymour: "It's literally the first I've heard of it today, I've seen no evidence of that whatsoever.

"But I just want to repeat what we're doing is - and I know that people have been rightly thinking about those issues - but I'm focused today 100% on what I think are the priorities of the people."

No 10 insisted it was "not aware" of evidence to support the "clearly serious allegations".