I SOMETIMES – no, often – wonder why politicians, given that they actually have to stick themselves up in front of the public every few years and ask for their jobs, should, for the most part, be so inept at reading the public mood. Granted, the public mood is itself frequently wrongheaded, inconsistent or just downright daft, but you’d think that if you were in the business of getting yourself elected, you might pay some attention to it.

I’m not talking about whether something is a good policy or idea, or anything like that. This is entirely about presentation. And I’m going to advance the controversial view that giving the impression that you relish seeing poverty-stricken children starve is what the psephologists call “a bad look”.

That’s not to say that I think the Westminster Government should necessarily have covered the cost of free school meals over the English half-term (as it did earlier in the pandemic for the summer holidays). The Tories are not automatically useless or callous because they decided not to, and if your knee-jerk reaction is to call them “scum”, you might want to ask yourself why the same wouldn’t apply to Labour, the SNP, or any other brand of politicians, none of whom have yet introduced year-round provision for children who get free school meals. By that logic, Nye Bevan was scum, for failing to add food to healthcare as something to be nationalised and available free at the point of use.

Except that all parties, to a greater or lesser extent, do advocate some such provision through the welfare system. It’s a perfectly respectable position to argue that the provision is inadequate; it’s also perfectly respectable to maintain that it’s flawed or counter-productive.

Those are political or ideological stances. What’s criminally stupid is to fail to make any case, or make it in a way that paints you in the worst possible light. For those who argue for more spending, that’s by looking like incompetent fiscal lunatics. There’s a reason why Jeremy Corbyn’s version of Labour got the worst electoral result in the party’s history.

For those arguing against spending, it’s harder to be a crowd-pleaser, but it needn’t require you to play King Rat in Dick Whittington. This is where the Tories are failing dismally. This is a Government that has spent £210 billion more than usual this year, and it’s letting itself be portrayed as penny-picking and heartless.

Any sensible government might have weighed up how much one week’s worth of meals for those already being supported would have cost, compared with the political damage it might create. Given that the footballer Marcus Rashford has been campaigning on this issue (to general approval, not least from the Government itself, which gave him an MBE for it), and that it had been done previously, it was a foreseeable question.

If it decided not to cough up, it could have explained its thinking in any one of a dozen presentable ways: to take just a couple, there’s the argument that it’s a council matter, and additional money has been given to councils, or the case that welfare payments have been increased to cover just such costs. Telling the low-paid that they should be able to feed a family of four on £10 a week, or that they should sell their iPhones, is not an approach that will tend to win you support.

Douglas Ross, who had the good luck not to vote on the measure, has actually adopted a reasonably sensible position – political positioning, that is, not whether he’s right or wrong – when the subject comes up: 1) I was never supposed to be in Westminster for this vote; 2) it’s an English measure, anyway; and 3) I’ve already introduced the opposite policy for the party in Scotland. This stance isn’t going to make anyone who hates the Tories fall in love with him, but it doesn’t make voters who have no strong opinion think badly of you for entirely avoidable reasons.

On this front, Rashford is much more politically canny than the professionals. He has very deliberately avoided condemnation, saying that, while he’s disappointed, his priority is to get on with helping.

The funny thing is that the Tories, of all political parties, should know exactly the presentational dangers of this sort of issue – actually, of this particular issue, because it has cropped up before, and it was responsible for creating a damaging political reputation then.

Readers older than 50, or anyone who has watched any drama set in the 1970s or 80s, will know that Margaret Thatcher – as if to provide proof of her inhuman callousness and hatred of the poor – was a “milk snatcher”, who abolished free milk and school meals when she was Education Secretary. Except that she didn’t.

In 1970, Tony Barber, then the Chancellor, wanted to get rid of milk and free school meals altogether, but Mrs Thatcher persuaded him to retain them for poorer children; she also got the money that was saved from the Budget ringfenced for other school improvements, and was actually praised by a leader in The Guardian for having fended off an attack on the education budget. But when, six months later, local councils stopped providing free milk, she still got the blame.

Of course, Mrs Thatcher didn’t see any reason why those who could afford to pay for milk or school meals shouldn’t be asked to, just as plenty of people don’t see why it’s suddenly the state’s business to start providing free food in addition to the existing welfare payments. But she understood the political charge involved in the issue, the potential danger, and the (in both economic and political terms) very negligible capital to be gained.

She later forgot that lesson when she introduced the poll tax – another measure for which local councils were responsible, but where central government got the blame anyway. And look how that ended up for her. The alarming thing, in watching the current Government at Westminster, is not even whether you think they’re right or wrong over any particular policy. It’s that it seems not to have the common sense to see huge great bear traps that are right in front of it.