The news that every one of Cornwall’s six Conservative MPs had voted against extending help to hungry children came as little surprise to anyone who had studied the parliamentary voting history of Scott Mann (North Cornwall), Derek Thomas (St Ives), Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay), Sheryll Murray (South East Cornwall), Cherilyn Mackrory (Truro and Falmouth), and Environment Secretary George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth).
None of them have demonstrated any previous capacity for independent thought, and all might fairly be described as lobby fodder who will willingly vote exactly as instructed by their political masters, no matter how damaging this might be to their constituents in one of the poorest parts of the UK. The sole – brief – exception is George Eustice, who resigned from government in 2018 rather than support Theresa May’s Brexit deal, before going on to back Boris Johnson’s leadership bid and a Withdrawal Agreement that the government itself has gone on to disavow.
The failure of Cornwall’s elected representatives to back the proposal to offer free meals to children facing hunger and deprivation was as predictable as it was depressing. But the response of the ordinary people and small businesses of Cornwall has been anything but.
In Cubert, the Village Chip Shop announced: “We are offering a free kids meal during half term to any child who has had their holiday support taken away.” In Falmouth, the tiny Castle Beach Cafe said it would be giving free lunch bags to any child who would normally be getting a free school meal, as did the Windjammer Café and Bar.
The good people at Rosie’s Kitchen in Bude were moved to post on their Facebook page:
Penzance’s Covid-19 Mutual Aid group extended a similar offer to people who are “financially struggling and worried about being able to feed your children throughout the holidays”. And it was the same story throughout Cornwall, as pubs, cafés and community enterprises stepped up to provide the help that the government has refused to give. An extraordinary outpouring of kindness and community spirit that has put Cornwall’s MPs to shame.
Some of these small businesses were so disgusted by the behaviour of their elected representatives that they decided to ban them from their premises. Two cafés in Newquay, Whiskers and Coffee on the Corner, told Steve Double, MP for St Austell and Newquay, that he was no longer welcome. Whiskers announced, in no uncertain terms:
“Steve Double MP CONSIDER YOURSELF BARRED from Whiskers.
Cornwall’s conservative leaders have voted AGAINST a motion to extend free school meals over half term to families in need.
Meanwhile on the daily House of Commons menu politicians continue to enjoy gourmet meals at bargain basement prices, all subsidised by us.”
There is no doubt that Cornwall’s MPs gravely underestimated both the generosity of their constituents and the disgust that the government’s callous attitude would cause. And their efforts to try to justify their behaviour have only made things worse.
Some of them have decided that the best policy is to keep schtum.
Derek Thomas, whose Facebook page proclaims him to be “working on behalf of St Ives, West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly”, declined to explain how his vote against feeding hungry kids would benefit his constituents.
In North Cornwall, Scott Mann decided that now would be just the moment for an important Facebook update on electric dog collars, which he feels are inhumane and should be banned “as soon as reasonably possible”. On the question of whether it is inhumane to deny meals to needy children, Scott has remained unaccountably silent.
Sherryl Murray, MP for South East Cornwall, resorted to posting memes trumpeting the supposedly generous support given by her government to local councils. In response, many of her constituents pointed out that the sums involved were wholly inadequate for Cornwall, since one in six – and in some areas one in three – children were living in poverty even before the pandemic.
The MP for Truro and Falmouth, Cherilyn Mackrory, also released a statement praising the government for its supposed generosity to Cornwall and accompanied by a curious photo of herself, Scott Mann and an un-named masked figure who appears to be the scandal-ridden communities secretary Robert Jenrick. The trio had the lugubrious air of mourners obliged to attend the funeral of an unloved mafia boss.
For his part, Steve Double unwisely decided to adopt a haughtily moral tone, announcing on his Facebook page:
“It should be the responsibly and privilege of parents to feed their own children. We should think very carefully about the state encroaching further into the rôle and responsibility of parents. The government is enabling families to budget for this through a responsive and effective welfare system, not by providing free food.
“What we need to avoid doing is deepening a cycle of state dependency which then becomes a trap it is harder to get out of. We inherited far too much of this from the last Labour government, and Keir Starmer and co would take us right back there.”
His attempt to use the situation as an opportunity to attack Labour, while waving away the real hardships faced by the many families in Cornwall who are falling through the yawning gaps in welfare provision, did not go down well with his constituents. The 952 comments in response to his post range in tone from contemptuous to outraged – and they included several from previous conservative voters. One, Yvonne McNeir, wrote:
“I have voted Conservative for a long time, you have now lost my vote. The handling of the free school meals, Covid-19 and Brexit to top, what a mess. People need financial assistance through the Covid situation – it is not of their doing and many, many people are losing their jobs because of Covid and the lockdowns. I am one of the lucky ones and I work for the NHS, but it hasn’t been easy. My partner lost work through this. People need PROPER help not just hand-outs that barely cover anything, and treating families and children the way the government have is morally wrong. And I’ve read that MPs are asking for a £3,000-plus pay rise next year – how many children’s mouths would that feed? Many MPs come from wealthy backgrounds and will not feel financial loss. The government is there for the country and its people, and should be especially looking after those that will feel this most. You as a party – and you represent your party – have lost your way.”
This would appear to be a very fair summary of the situation. A U-turn by Boris Johnson’s government may now be on the cards, but it seems highly improbable that Mr Double and his colleagues will ever find their way back to anything approaching credibility in the eyes of their Cornish constituents.