THERESA MAY is not the first Prime Minister to have their political fortunes inextricably linked to the World Cup performance of an England football team.
Though Harold Wilson had, contrary to perception, won the 1966 election before Bobby Moore lifted the Jules Rimet Trophy at Wembley, England’s eve-of-election exit in 1970 was an untimely one. The Yorkshire-born premier always maintained that the public’s despair after Sir Alf Ramsey’s side lost to West Germany in Mexico made all the difference and contributed to his defeat four days later.
And here is the irony. The victor was Edward Heath – the Tory premier who led Britain into Europe with consequences which reverberate to this day.
Now, as hopes build of an unexpected England triumph in Russia, Mrs May is fighting for her political life as her Cabinet meets at Chequers today to try to formulate a Brexit policy on trade and customs after two years of indecision.
Though there have been many periods since 1966 when being England manager was more invidious than occupying 10 Downing Street, this is not so now.
For, while the quietly-effective England manager Gareth Southgate, a resident of Harrogate, is the beneficiary of low expectations, Mrs May – who came to power two years ago by promising ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – is very much on the defensive after last year’s election own goal that left her bereft of a Commons majority and at the mercy of malcontents as well as Northern Ireland’s DUP.
Either Leave and Remain-supporting Ministers agree a collective position – or she faces Cabinet resignations which, in turn, make her position untenable. To use footballing parlance, she’s three-nil down, with time running out, before a Brexit White Paper is published next week ahead of October’s EU summit.
Yet, while Mrs May will be relieved that most of the country is distracted by World Cup euphoria, her position would be considerably stronger on the political field of play if she had, in fact, followed Southgate’s managerial style. Here’s why:
1. Southgate has not been afraid to drop experienced players like Wayne Rooney, England’s record goalscorer, and goalkeeper Joe Hart, from his Three Lions squad. Such ruthlessness contrasts with the PM’s acquiescence to serial trouble-makers like Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who only plays by his own rules.
2. The England manager has picked players on form, and won respect for doing so. The wing-back ‘express train’ Kieran Trippier has been one of the discoveries of the World Cup. Yet, in contrast, Mrs May persists with serial under-performers such as Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and others who deserved the red card long ago.
3. Southgate has created an infectious culture in which no player is bigger than the team. The squad, international in outlook, is united. In contrast, Ministers, increasingly isolationist in their approach, can no longer conceal their disdain and dislike of colleagues.
4. Southgate concluded temperament was key to England ending their penalty shootout jinx, as they did against Colombia when goalkeeper Jordan Pickford rose to the occasion. He only wanted players taking spot kicks who were sound in body and mind for such high pressure moments. Yet, while Mrs May has shown statesmanship after terror attacks and so on, her colleagues invariably falter.
5. The astute Southgate has created a bond between England players and supporters which did not previously exist. He’s also been candid with the media while Mrs May’s team continue to be secretive and suspicious. There’s little empathy with the country.
6. Finally, Yorkshire players form the backbone of Southgate’s side. Seven of his squad were born in this county – and the final World Cup friendly was at Leeds United’s Elland Road ground. What a contrast with a Government that continues to show utter contempt for the North. There’s a lesson here, isn’t there?
Though this is an aside, the character shown by the England players thus far – and Southgate’s willingness to trust his younger players – marks a refreshing change from the self-aggrandisement of all those plotting to topple Mrs May.
Not even VAR – the controversial Video Assistant Referee system – could make sense of the Ministerial squabbles as the aforementioned Johnson’s “f*** business” jibe against Airbus, Nissan and now Jaguar Land Rover demanding Brexit clarity is countered by Chancellor Philip Hammond and Business Secretary Greg Clark calling at Cabinet for the concerns of industrialists to be recognised.
And as Andrea Jenkyns, the Morley and Outwood MP, warns from the touchlines that “prime ministers keep their jobs if they keep their promises”, it explains why the World Cup matters to Mrs May, whose first sporting love is, in fact, cricket. If England lose to Sweden tomorrow, the despondency – just like 1970 – could spill over into politics.
Yet, if the England side goes all the way to the final for the first time since 1966, the ‘feelgood factor’ might just buy Theresa May some time to secure a deal which begins to unite a country still deeply divided by Brexit and remind politicians like Boris Johnson that they, too, are in a team game.
In short, the Cabinet must stop scoring own goals and, instead, embrace the example being set by Gareth Southgate, and skipper Harry Kane, when it comes to restoring national pride. If they can do it, Mrs May’s ministers should be able to do likewise if, of course, they are still minded to do so. And it is here where football and politics diverge.