Andrew Grice: The Week In Politics

England, the World Cup and political opportunism
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The Independent Online

As he awaits his turn with increasing frustration, Gordon Brown is getting fed up with David Cameron invading his natural turf. On child care, the Human Rights Act and global poverty, the Tory leader has grabbed positive headlines.

There is another bit of turf that Mr Cameron has occupied to the horror of Team Brown - by posing as a football-loving England fan with a St George's flag on his bike who marked Mr Brown man-for-man by rushing off at the last minute to watch England's game against Sweden.

There followed an unseemly spat between the two men aspiring to be our next prime minister. The Camerons briefed the press that the Tory leader sat with ordinary fans while Mr Brown mingled with fellow finance ministers in the VIP section. The Chancellor's team hit back by claiming that Mr Cameron had bagged a ticket from ITV, enjoyed their corporate hospitality and flown to Germany on a private jet owned by the boss of Carphone Warehouse, while Mr Brown travelled on a more environmentally friendly train.

Mr Cameron's recently discovered love for the beautiful game and David Beckham's parties, have deliberately disrupted Mr Brown's game plan to use the World Cup to reassure the people of Middle England that he is really one of them. The man who helped to save his beloved Raith Rovers from financial extinction listed Paul Gascoigne's wonderful volley against Scotland in Euro 96 as one of his favourite football memories - surely a retrospective judgement. Mr Brown invited The Mail on Sunday in to watch him watching England's game against Trinidad & Tobago. "My wife is from Middle England, so I can relate to it," he reassured the newspaper.

All this produced a silly backlash in Scotland, where two men who don't need to win votes in England attacked the Chancellor. Alex Salmond, the Scottish National Party leader, accused Mr Brown of "morphing into an Englishman". Jack McConnell, Labour's First Minister in Scotland, cheered on Trinidad & Tobago and Ecuador against England because they were the underdogs. The Chancellor, a genuine football fan, is convinced that Mr Cameron is a fraud. The Tory leader once admitted he could name only three players from Aston Villa, the "team I half-heartedly support" and was "distinctly ropey on the offside rule". Nor could he name the current England goalie. Oops, another own goal.

I can vouch for Mr Brown's credentials. Over dinner years ago, when I told him I supported Spurs, he rattled off their 1960-61 double-winning team without blinking. He has a photographic memory for long-forgotten players as well as the public borrowing figures.

There is nothing new about politicians cuddling up to sportsmen. "England only wins the World Cup under Labour," Harold Wilson, then Prime Minister, boasted in 1966. Nowadays, Tony Blair appears on BBC Radio Five's 606 programme and names David Miliband as the Wayne Rooney of his Cabinet. An unlikely England triumph in Germany might give Mr Blair a much-needed boost, say allies. His officials want to make sure the England team would pass by Downing Street on a victory parade.

Whether any of this impresses the voters is another matter. Mr Blair deserved credit for helping London to land the 2012 Olympics a year ago. On the 606 show, he chatted happily away about the merits of Owen Hargreaves but he doesn't pick the England team. His unpopularity is not going to melt away if we win the World Cup. There might be a clamour for Sven to stay, but not Tony.

And yet the voter appeal Mr Blair maintained for many years partly explains the antics of Mr Brown and Mr Cameron. "Blair changed the terms of the political game; from now on, a party leader has to look like a normal human being," one member of the Shadow Cabinet told me. The Tories hope that Mr Cameron will look more "normal" than Mr Brown.

There is no mistaking Mr Cameron is an Englishman, while Mr Brown has some work to do. Since long before the World Cup, he has been making speeches on "Britishness" as an antidote to opinions polls suggesting more than half of English voters do not want a Scottish prime minister now the Scots have their own parliament. I suspect people won't mind so much once they see Mr Brown in Downing Street, but the Tories are convinced his Scottishness will make him less appealing to Middle England than Mr Blair.

Mr Brown's imminent elevation, the prominence of Scots in the Cabinet and Labour's reliance on its Scottish MPs to force through legislation that does not apply north of the border, have all propelled the "Scottish question" up the political agenda.

The Tories are taking up the superficially attractive cry of "English votes for English MPs". But the result could be a shambles, with a Labour Commons majority on economic, foreign and defence policy and a Tory majority on health and education, on which Scottish MPs would be barred from voting.

With such serious matters to consider, perhaps our politicians should stop talking about the football and stick to the day job. But they won't.

Indeed, I hear that Mr Brown is already plotting his tactics for his big match against Mr Cameron, in 2009. As prime minister, he plans to launch a bid for England to stage the 2018 World Cup, and to line up pledges of support from other world leaders. How could Mr Cameron match that?