Football and politics. One’s an over-hyped game filled with preening prima-donnas, petty rivalries and players who rarely let loyalty to the team stand in the way of personal ambition. And – you’re ahead of me, aren’t you? – football’s not much better.
This week, two big stories have dominated the news: the resignation of Boris Johnson, and England beating Austria in the opening game of Euro 2022.
What better way to mark the dovetailing of these two moments of national import than by going to a Euro 2022 fan park and asking supporters there: who should be our next prime minister?
Might Rishi Sunak make a good match captain? How would Tom Tugendhat cope with the opposition up him? Could Theresa May – surely not? – have one more season left in her?
“Do we have to have any of them?” asked 24-year-old Sadie Wilson at the Sheffield fan festival on Saturday evening. “This will be the third Tory prime minister we’ve had who wasn’t voted in [initially]. They talk of integrity. If they had any, they’d have a general election.”
Could she not think of a single Conservative she wouldn’t mind running the country?
“Probably the least competent so that Labour wins next time,” she decided after a moment.
In a red, urban stronghold on a Saturday evening this view was probably to be expected. Safe to say there’s won’t be huge cross-over between the 100,000(ish) Tory members who get to decide the new prime minister and the people here, at the city’s Devonshire Green, drinking, dancing and attempting the crossbar challenge. Especially so since thousands of them were Swedish and Dutch visitors – here for their countries’ late evening game in the city.
But even taking that into account the lack of positive cut through of any of the candidates was telling. Some might argue it raises questions about the quality of the front runners.
“I don’t know much about any of them and those I do, I don’t particularly like,” said Rebecca Brown, a 44-year-old sales worker, taking aim in particular at Priti Patel. “What’s Rwanda all about? I say keep the immigrants here and send her over there. Good riddance.”
Her friend, Sharna Mulholland – a single mother-of-two and Labour voter – had concerns about the cost-of-living crisis. “Which one of them is going to solve that?” the 31-year-old asked. “Because I’ve heard them talking about tax cuts for the rich and I don’t know much about it but I don’t see how that benefits most of the country right now. People need help. If energy prices go up again in winter – can you imagine?”
On paper, of course, the so-called big beasts – Liz Truss, Nadhim Zahawi, Jeremy Hunt – look to be the favourites. But, as Brian Clough didn’t quite say: politics isn’t played on paper, it’s played in the tea rooms, private offices and WhatsApp groups of Westminster.
For Rob Morris, an e-commerce furniture seller, someone who could bring some calm after the chaos of the Johnson years was essential. He’d voted Labour in 2019 but had gone Tory in the past, and could, he thought, conceivably be won back in the future.
“I don’t mind Rishi Sunak too much,” the 45-year-old said. “He seems very measured, very professional.” A bite of his burrito. “And he has the advantage of not being someone like Liz Truss or Nadine Dorries.”
Like others, he felt there should be a general election relatively soon after a new leader was picked. “There’s no mandate if you don’t put it out to the people,” he said.
A few feet away, financial advisor Neil Higgingbotham had given it some thought and decided there was only one man for the job: “Andy Burnham,” he declared.
Wait, what? He’s not a Conservative and he’s not even an MP.
“That’s right,” the 48-year-old said. “But he’s still the best potential prime minister this country has. He gets it, and he has answers.”
Of the Tories, though? “I think a clean sweep is needed,” came the reply. “Maybe the defence lad [Tom Tugendhat]. He’d be a fresh face which I think would help. New ideas. A lot those in there now – they’ve all been tarred by being [associated with Johnson].”
Here in the fan park, it seemed the verdict was inconclusive but then perhaps that was to be expected. Politics, as they sort of say, is a funny old game.