Prime ministerial games, and Mr Blair's foul

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The Independent Online
THE sporting interests of prime ministers are a neglected topic, chiefly because there is not a great deal to neglect. C R Attlee was a good billiards player and was interested in cricket, taking the Times only for the scores (and the Daily Herald, which he never read, out of party loyalty). Winston Churchill had played polo in his youth and later kept a racehorse but was uninterested in sport as normally understood.

Harold Wilson claimed to have been a promising long-distance runner at Oxford and could later recite the names of the Huddersfield Town teams of his boyhood. Indeed, it is said that Mr Brian Walden forfeited any chance he might ever have had of joining Wilson's government when he not only detected him in error in his recollection of the Huddersfield lineup of (I think) 1927 but, worse, had the temerity to point it out. James Callaghan briefly played rugby for Streatham, which, if things had turned out differently, might have become a first-class club.

Lord Home actually played cricket for Middlesex on a few occasions. In three innings he had a batting average of 7.67; as a bowler he did better, taking four wickets for a creditable average of 20.25. John Major would have liked to play cricket to a similar standard and might have - it is impossible to tell - if he had not lost a kneecap in Africa.

Edward Heath made a, to me, miraculous progress in an extraordinarily short time from someone who messed about in boats to international yachtsman. Conservative public relations men (the phrase "spin doctors" had not then been invented though the practitioners were much the same) displayed their leader before our admiring eyes as an intrepid sailor as well as an accomplished musician. The latter aspect of his activities was, indeed, underplayed in comparison to the yachting, as being unhelpful to the cultivation of that vigorous and virile image which was then being sought. Sir Edward also liked to attend international rugby matches.

Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan and Margaret Thatcher were uninterested in sport. The last was not only uninterested in but positively opposed to the activity as a colossal waste of time for all concerned (a view shared by most women except, curiously enough, during Wimbledon fortnight).

Mr Tony Blair is both interested in and clearly adept at football. I say that because not long before he became prime minister he was shown on television heading a ball with remarkable facility to and fro between himself and Mr Kevin Keegan, who was then, and for all I know still is, a Labour supporter. However, Mr Blair paid scant regard to the achievements of the British Isles rugby team in South Africa last summer, and had to be nudged both into sending them messages of support before their Test matches and also into holding a reception for them after they had returned unexpectedly victorious to these shores. Not only is Mr Blair uninterested in rugby: there are clearly no votes in it.

Football is different. Or, if it is not, politicians now think it is. If England or Scotland do well in the World Cup or, what is more unlikely, win the bauble outright, Mr Blair will not need any instruction in where his hospitable duty lies. No 10 will be awash with champagne and accents ruder even than those of the Gallagher brothers. In a way, however, Mr Blair does not have to play the generous host. That is because he has won an election, has three or four years to go before the next one and, meanwhile, has a majority of nearly 180.

Wilson's position was not the same. He, more than any other politician, is associated with the World Cup, largely because he was prime minister in 1966, when England last won it. This truth has begotten a myth: that Wilson won the election in that year with a majority of just under 100 partly because England had won the cup.

It is stated repeatedly that Labour won as handsomely as it did because Wilson, the consummate domestic politician, skilfully exploited the national team's success. But this is impossible, for Labour won the election in March, England the cup in July. What is true is that Wilson exploited - or tried to exploit - the win immediately afterwards, suddenly appearing unannounced, pipe in hand, to join the team as they stood on their hotel balcony on the Saturday evening of the game.

The general election of 1970, the next World Cup year, raised slightly different considerations. But here again a myth has grown up: that Wilson chose to go to the country when he did, in the summer, because he wished to exploit the prospective success of the England team in Mexico. But the competition played no part in the calculations either of himself or of his acolytes. One was that decimalisation was due in February 1971. Ministers realised that this change would not only be unpopular in itself, as it was confusing, but also lead to inflation, as it duly did (and as the introduction of the new pounds 2 coin will do likewise).

Accordingly 1971 was out for electoral purposes. Wilson chose June 1970 rather than October largely because he had wind of a Conservative plan to spend pounds 2m (then a colossal sum which Labour could not match) on the assumption of an autumn campaign. Roy Jenkins, his Chancellor, also assured him that the economic prospects for June were as favourable as for October: there was nothing in it.

The election date was fixed for 18 June, by which day the football competition would not have been completed in any event. But Wilson certainly exploited it in the speeches he made during that sunny early summer. He urged his audiences to come home from work, "clean up" - presumably a Huddersfield or Merseyside expression for "have a wash" - then do a little light canvassing on behalf of the People's Party and complete the happy evening by supporting "our lads" in faraway Mexico before their television screens.

Alas! On Sunday 14 June England were knocked out of the cup by West Germany after leading 2-0 at half time. Challenged about the effect of this sporting setback on his electoral prospects, Wilson gallantly replied: "I am not aware that any of my cabinet colleagues were in the British [sic] team." In the election Labour was 29 seats short of an absolute majority. It is unlikely that continuing success in the competition would have won this number of seats. My own opinion is that it would not have made enough difference to win a single one of them.

Success in 1998 does not make any difference to Mr Blair. He has none the less managed to make both himself and the forces of law and order look foolish. He has admitted that the vaunted national computer on football hooligans takes into account only violent crimes associated with football and not violent crimes in general: which, as old Euclid used to say, is absurd.

He has also urged the employers of convicted hooligans to dismiss them. What earthly good does he suppose that will do? Turn them into law-abiding citizens? Merely to ask the question is to demonstrate its absurdity. Such action would also be unlawful under the employment protection legislation which he presumably still supports. Lord Irvine should clearly give his former pupil a short, sharp course on this branch of the law - and on the rule of law in society as a whole.