Waking up on a cold morning earlier this week I switched on the radio to catch Michael Gove declaring “in the words of Jon Snow… winter is coming”. It was a very disorientating experience.
For a start why on earth, on a BBC programme, was a Channel 4 presenter being quoted? Secondly, why was a leading Government minister, on one of the most crucial days in Parliament’s history, standing in as the weatherman? And, finally, weren’t we already six weeks into winter, given that the season technically started on 1 December? Perhaps the Environment Secretary was extending his ministerial duties into the meteorological sphere and warning us that temperatures were expected to drastically fall in the coming weeks? The penny actually dropped when my alarm went off. Gove was warning the nation of the apocalyptic consequences of rejecting of Theresa May’s Brexit deal. And he was doing it through the medium of Game of Thrones.
For some reason, today’s politicians and commentators think they are being trendy, cool and down with the kids by making constant references to the cult fantasy drama.
The “winter is coming” quote, uttered in the TV series by a rugged, non-newsreading character called Jon Snow, is not the first time Gove has alluded to the show. In a bizarre 2014 video he revealed his favourite character to be Tyrion Lannister, a man “reviled throughout his life…as some toxic figure”. Such clear self-identification with Lannister might have been considered damning until he compared the diminutive nobleman to Winston Churchill, helpfully explaining that he would “never, never, never surrender.”
A fortnight ago, Donald Trump placed a poster that read “Sanctions are coming” on a table in the Cabinet Room. Then he followed it up a week or so later with another photoshopped poster announcing: “The wall is coming.” The not-so-rugged Channel 4 presenter Jon Snow got in on the act in 2017, beginning his post-general election broadcast with the words “Good evening. I know nothing” – a nod to one of Game of Thrones’ most famous lines. The following year he introduced a blog about the snowy weather with the sentence: “I know I know nothing, but winter does seem to be coming.” That’s two Game of Thrones catchphrases for the price of one.
Embracing popular culture in this way can be a double-edged sword. After Gove stabbed Boris Johnson in the front during the 2016 Tory leadership contest, Ben Wallace, a supporter of the mop-topped Etonian and now Security Minister, said: “He is actually Theon Greyjoy or will be by the time I am finished with him.”
Attempting to be trendy, act cool or get down with the kids is never a good look for a politician. Neil Kinnock came across as a buffoon in Tracey Ullman’s My Guy pop video in the 1980s. Tony Blair never recovered from his flirtation with Britpop musicians like Noel Gallagher and was universally derided when he intervened to save Coronation Street’s Deirdre Barlow from her undeserved murder conviction.
David Cameron’s self-declared fanatical devotion to Aston Villa was undermined when he hilariously mixed up his fave football team with West Ham United.
In fact, just as political leaders should never try to connect with the zeitgeist by commenting on footballing matters, so football leaders should steer clear of politics. Last weekend, instead of offering the world his thoughts on his side’s uninspiring goalless draw with Huddersfield, Cardiff manager Neil Warnock moaned that he couldn’t “wait to get out of” Europe, adding: “I think we’ll be far better out of the bloody thing. In every aspect. Football-wise as well, absolutely. To hell with the rest of the world.”
By “rest of the world” one hopes he wasn’t referring to the players in his team who are Spanish, French or Danish. Nor to the club’s Malaysian owner or its chairman, who was born in Cyprus.
Gove might have thought he was being canny by comparing Brexit with the hippest show on the planet, but he ended up doing a Warnock. For in leaving the European Union, his beloved show won’t be eligible to receive EU funding when filming in Northern Ireland – one of its major shooting locations.