By Hannah Rodger
THE LEADER of Scotland’s newest political party has criticised footballer Marcus Rashford over his campaign to give free meals to children from poor families.
Michelle Ballantyne, who was this week revealed as the new leader of Reform UK Scotland, said that something “didn’t add up” about the professional footballer’s motives behind his highly successful lobbying of the UK Government.
She also questioned his own story about going hungry as a child.
Reform UK, previously known as the Brexit party, launched in Scotland on Monday with Ms Ballantyne announced as its first leader.
She issued a plea to those who were disenfranchised with politics to join her party and stand for election to Holyrood in May, and told The the she was looking for “an eclectic bunch” of people.
Speaking to The , Ballantyne said that Reform UK was about making policies that “actually make a difference to people on the ground” and cited free schools meals during the pandemic as one such example where a policy did not work.
She explained: “The problem is there is a lot of ‘policy sell’ but it doesn’t work in terms of changing people’s lives.
“They talk about free school meals and the stigma of that. The stigma bites in secondary school, that’s not what they are solving.
“In the past there have been attempts to provide school meals in the holidays and virtually no children turned up to take them.
“People run these sort of campaigns to influence politics, and they often work.
“You could argue that Rashford’s campaign on school meals had a huge impact but you also have to ask when he is telling the terrible story of his life and Labour are bashing the Conservatives about this being terrible … Rashford grew up under Labour, they were in Government.
“And he was an apprentice at a football club, who will have seen that he got to eat correctly. None of it really adds up or makes a lot of sense.”
Asked what benefit there would be to Rashford by “playing politics”, Ballantyne said: “People like politics, politics is a strange world and people find it exciting, they like campaigning, they like the publicity, and they feel they are doing something useful.
“I don’t know what Rashford earns but I suspect he could have probably paid for the school meals himself.”
Ballantyne said she had taken time to “re-centre” herself after her decision to leave the Scottish Conservatives, and had been approached by several other Scottish parties keen on having her join them.
When asked which, she said it would “not be appropriate” to name them. However, when approached by Reform UK, she felt the party fitted with her views.
After meeting with party chairman Richard Tice, she spoke to founder Nigel Farage, and described him as a “lovely” man.
Ballantyne said: “I was introduced to Nigel Farage. He was lovely. Not the least bit as he is portrayed.
“He is a very thoughtful, very considered man. He knows his stuff, he really does understand it and thinks deeply about it.
“He is very centrist; I would even say he is very conservative. We found that we agreed on most things, he is not an extremist at all. He recognises that sometimes to get heard you have to say things in the way he says them, but he is vilified wrongly.”
When asked about Farage’s friendship and association with Donald Trump, and whether this could have an impact on the party’s fortunes, Ballantyne said it was “up to individuals to decide who their friends are”.
She said: “I’ve never met Donald Trump, I don’t know what he is like as an individual. Nigel likes him and gets on with him.
“I think there is a public face of people and a private face.
“When I read about myself in the papers I don’t recognise myself. People who are closest to me think it’s crazy.”
Ballantyne said that the public perception of her as a “career politician” who was “only interested in myself” was wrong, and she had never sought to be involved in politics until 10 years ago.
Having become a Conservative councillor in 2012, Ballantyne became the leader of the council group and was then elected as an MSP for South Scotland in 2017.
Prior to this, she worked in health and social care. The 58-year-old South Scotland MSP said she now represents her constituents more than she had done as a Tory MSP, explaining: “I haven’t changed. I’m still the same person with the same views they voted for originally. All that has changed is the party.
“In terms of representation, they probably have something more akin to what they voted for. They voted for me, and the party I’m in is just me.”
When about those who did not vote for her personally, but for a Conservative, Ballantyne insisted that she still represented the manifesto the Conservatives campaigned on in the last election, and it was the party which had “changed its position”.
She said: “I stood on the manifesto of the party at the time, which I still represent. The party has changed, on several key things – I have not.”
Asked about the rising support for Scottish independence, the MSP said that the 17 polls so far showing a majority support to leave the union had “not told the whole truth”.
She said: “If we had another independence vote, we would vote to stay in the union.
“In the middle of a pandemic, people are responding to questions in a certain way, influenced by what is happening at the moment which is totally different to what happens when you debate the realities.
“When people look at the reality of it, they will opt for the union.”
Ballantyne said one recent example of the union being beneficial for Scotland was during the pandemic, and added: “If we had voted to be independent in 2014 we would have been devastated by coronavirus.
“We would still be waiting or a vaccine, we would be absolutely catastrophically, economically bust. “
She said the First Minister had been “disingenuous” in her representation of the financial support the Scottish Government has provided throughout the pandemic, adding: “Billions of pounds that she has been giving out has all come from the union.
“This is where the ‘Stronger for Scotland’ message is toe-curling.
“They would throw Scotland under a bus, absolutely, to achieve a dream that Nicola Sturgeon has held since she was a little girl that has no basis in reality.
“It is quite horrifying.”