Matthew Norman: Johnson looks a winner (unlike Brown)

Politics is the most brutal combat sport of all, and you seldom win in sport by trying not to lose
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The Independent Online

On this day of days the subject can hardly be avoided. So let me begin by reporting that the odds against England winning the World Cup are the same as those against Alan Johnson succeeding Tony Blair as Labour leader. Both are 7-1 second favourites, and just as that CT scan in Manchester has buoyed the optimism about Sven's lads, with every week that passes the suspicion grows that Mr Johnson could yet give Gordon Brown quite a run for his money.

The thing about all sports at their highest level (politics being the most brutal combat sport of all) is that you seldom win anything by trying not to lose. As Carlos Alberto recently observed, England's failing has long been the instinct to try to protect a lead rather than increase it, and as the defender who scored the greatest World Cup goal ever, late in a game already well won, he speaks with authority on the point.

This is the problem for that fanatical England supporter Gordon Brown. He has been ahead for so long that he cannot help but do what's known in football argot as defending too deep. He is desperate to cling on to the final whistle, and this makes him deceptively vulnerable should the Cabinet's Postman Pat decide to attack.

If he does, this could shape up into a classic. "Styles make fights" is one of boxing's enduring clichés, and the styles of these potential combatants are beautifully matched. Admittedly both are fighting out of the pink corner, the blood-red political instincts of their youths have long since been diluted by splashes of social democratic yellow and Thatcherite blue.

However, broad agreement on policy matters little. What will count more with a Labour electoral college made jittery by the Tories' poll advantage, especially the MPs, is which looks best placed to counter the easy charm of David Cameron, and hold on to enough key marginals to keep the Conservatives from power. With which, to reduce it to its homeliest, would your average, apathetic swing voter most easily imagine him or herself nattering over a drink or watching football on telly?

Here, the contrast couldn't be starker. Gordon remains a stilted, gauche, unnerving character - a brooding, cuticle-nibbling obsessive incapable of relaxing for two seconds on an odyssey which, for all that involves a 10-yard journey next door, is now almost as lengthy and convoluted as Ulysses's return from Troy. However mighty the intellect, however acute the political instincts, however much his friends insist that in private he is a warm and amusing host, in public he is no more at ease with himself than ever he was.

Nothing confirms this more than his declaration that one of his most cherished footballing memories was Paul Gascoigne's goal against Scotland in Euro '96. It is hard to overstate how revealing this is. For a proud Scot to claim that he enjoyed a flash of genius from the auldest footballing enemy is a ridiculously transparent fiction. When Gazza flipped the ball over the last defender's head and crisply volleyed home, the nausea will have surfed over his gut, and the tears of frustration clouded the vision in his functioning eye. He will have felt as England fans feel whenever the decisive penalty duly rebounds off the goalkeeper's knee.

Why he told this fib is all too obvious. Perceiving his Scottishness as a problem with English electors, he believes that affecting cool impartiality between the nations will assuage some doubts. Needless to say, it did the opposite. SNP leader Alex Salmond thought it fishy, and you needn't have the nose of the chief tester at Jo Malone to sniff out the phoniness. The remark made it crystal clear that Gordon will never be cured of a pathological incapability to permit himself to be himself.

Even from the little we know of him, Alan Johnson clearly has no such handicap. He is far the most natural, easy-going politician a Blair cabinet has produced, and after nine years of androids, bullies, thugs and nervous nellies, not to mention such irrepressible beams of sunshine as Hazel Blears, that gives him a colossal edge.

A diary column has observed that Mr Johnson looks a bit like Max Bygraves, and one is obliged to ask this: does he wanna tell us a story? If he does, the story he has to tell is compelling. Orphaned at 12 and brought up by his sister, jacking in grammar school without an O-level, married with two babies at 18, stacking shelves in Tesco, walking out with admirable cussedness when denied a pay rise to go with a promotion, taking to the bike to deliver the mail to Dorneywood, rising through the postal workers' union, and then reaching Parliament... it's a remarkable life, and while one hesitates to call him the drinking man's John Major, his ascent from tough south London beginnings looks no less exquisitely well designed for comparison with Mr Cameron than was Mr Major's when he took on another old Etonian, Douglas Hurd, in 1990.

Like the man he overtly wishes to replace as deputy PM, Mr Johnson is unimpeachably working class by background, but unlike Mr Prescott he isn't chippy about it. And like the man he may covertly wish to beat to the big job, he lost a daughter, albeit one fully grown rather than newborn. He has endured a gruesome load of tragedy for one in middle age without appearing to have become embittered, coming across as a witty, self-teasing fellow, once affecting to believe that Davos, home of that annual economic forum, is in Greece rather than Switzerland. Most unlike Gordon, he gives the impression that politics is a career and a fascination, but not a fixation. He has the confidence to draw a parallel between his sincere fantasising about being in a rock band and Mr Blair's prissy pretensions. And he loves his football with the wry purism of the Queens Park Rangers fan in an age when Chelsea's billions make west London's littler clubs seem more quaintly irrelevant than ever. Mr Johnson would never feel the need to ingratiate himself with anyone by citing a goal against England as one of his happiest memories.

As for what must be his unhappiest footballing memory, he may be encouraged to recall from QPR agonisingly missing out on the 1976 league championship, after heading the table with a few games to go, that winning from the front is a devilishly hard thing to do. Have 30 years of hurt stopped Alan Johnson dreaming - about his own title ambitions, if not QPR's? In the admittedly doolally Blairite bunker they are desperate for him to have a go, and more people in the Labour Party and the country seem to be feeling the same. Whether he wants it for himself is another matter, but if he does 7-1 looks much better value about him than about Gordon Brown's beloved England in the World Cup.