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What the European Super League tells us about prime ministerial priorities

A dynamic prime minister did whatever it took to see off a threat to (one of our) national games

A dynamic prime minister did whatever it took to see off a threat to (one of our) national games. But, Jill Rutter argues, this just throws into sharp relief his failure to tackle more important problems

First-year economics students are taught about the importance of revealed preference. It is not what you say you will buy, it’s what you actually spend your money on. 

Prime ministers have limited budgets to spend – of time, attention and political capital. Boris Johnson has shown that he was willing to pay a lot of attention to stopping six private enterprises – or football clubs – breaking free from the constraints of English Premier League rules and joining a new pan-European operation. Whereas Margaret Thatcher might have simply stood back and applauded the entrepreneurial ambition of the “big six”, Johnson’s Red Wall klaxon flashed, the prospect of an electorally productive move beckoned in the run-up to the 6 May local elections, and he intervened.

The fan-led review of football governance, promised in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, was suddenly kicked into life with former sports minister Tracey Crouch asked to lead. The prime minister used his convening power to knock heads together, and within less than a week he was able to declare victory. All English clubs withdrew from the just-launched league, which collapsed within days, and chastened clubs await the outcome of the Crouch review. But while happy fans credit the prime minister with saving their beautiful game from the curse of Americanisation of sport, Johnson’s determination to get onto the pitch shows up the other occasions in which he has lingered on the sidelines. 

Boris Johnson is frequently slow to react to issues that demand prime ministerial attention

The most immediate contrast is with the Johnson’s slowness to intervene as violence escalated out of control in Northern Ireland – with his speed of reaction counted in days not hours. Perhaps the prime minister took a judgment that he was hardly likely to calm tension there since his role in negotiating the controversial Northern Ireland protocol and then repeatedly misrepresenting it has proven so inflammatory to unionists. 

But if inaction could be explained (if not excused) in that case, there are other comparisons to make – not least with the prime minister’s apparent lack of interest in reports from China in early 2020 about a pesky virus that just might make it onto the shores of the UK. While football was deemed too important to leave to a secretary of state, the prime minister was perfectly happy to leave Matt Hancock to chair the first five Covid COBRA meetings. It was only in March – with the virus rampant much closer to home, in continental Europe – that the prime minister started to get involved. At all points in 2020 his instinct was to wait to see whether something might turn up that would reduce the urgency to act, not intervene – to quote Michael Heseltine – “before breakfast, lunch and tea”.

It is not just with Covid that there is a marked contrast. It took the prime minister from October to March last year to convene his newly established cabinet committee on climate change strategy, despite climate change threating far more than the hopes of Hartlepool or Workington Town to make it into Champion’s League. While the government is edging its way to fleshing out its net zero strategy, with the prime minister also attending the US president’s Earth Day summit, it is far from clear that he spends much time driving the critical policy decisions and ensuring those decisions are backed up by action. His much vaunted “levelling up” agenda is in much the same box: plenty of warm words and gestures, but not so many concrete actions that will make a huge difference to the life chances of people in deprived areas.

Johnson promised to save football – but there is still no sign of a plan to fix social care

Or take another thorny issue. On taking office the prime minister said he had a plan for reform of social care. He promised reform in his election manifesto, pledging to “build a cross-party consensus to bring forward an answer”. Matt Hancock wrote to all MPs and peers to initiate cross-party talks on social care in March 2020, but there has been no follow-up since.

 The pandemic – and its toll in care homes – exposed the fragility of the sector, and brought home to many both the important role of social care, but also the fact that so many of their staff are among the lowest paid in the country. Every year chancellors announce inadequate sticking plasters – which ease financial pressures in areas often where need is least by allowing council tax top ups. Now there are rumours that No.10’s not quite oven-ready plan is being put back in the deep freeze for another year.

Of course Johnson is not the first prime minister to shy away from delivering a social care solution: Theresa May came a cropper with her ambitious attempt to get a mandate in the 2017 general election, while before her David Cameron and George Osborne had reviewed, legislated and then ducked away.

Sorting football was easy – and voter friendly. It required no cash and apart from a few foreign club owners appealed to a rare national consensus.  But now Johnson has discovered what an active PM can do, it is time to turn his attention to those issues that need prime ministerial application and attention to solve.

Prime minister
Johnson government
Institute for Government

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