Liz Truss’s strange and chilling desire to ‘channel the spirit of Don Revie’ | Jonathan Liew
At Conservative party hustings in Leeds six weeks ago, Liz Truss declared she wanted to “channel the spirit of Don Revie”. Which suggests she wasn’t entirely familiar with his experience of leading his country. Still, as she takes office amid dismal poll ratings, with a sceptical parliamentary party and an election looming in 2024, the new prime minister may just regard three years in the job, followed by a lucrative and widely reviled sinecure in the Middle East, as a pretty decent outcome.
Of course, political coverage in this country has long been influenced by the confected drama and basic unseriousness of its sporting counterpart. And sure enough much of the recent coverage of the Conservative leadership “race” has been essentially indistinguishable from the media flurry that usually greets big managerial appointments in football.
The soft-focus features on her background and upbringing. The feverish speculation over spending plans and backroom appointments. The customary references to her in-tray, as if the monumental responsibilities of a prime minister are somehow akin to items of office admin. One: make Downing Street a fortress again. Two: get Jacob Rees-Mogg firing again. And so on.
There is, nevertheless, a serious point to be made here. Perhaps one of the reasons political culture in this country has developed such an air of impermanence is the insistence on covering it as if it were a rolling entertainment product: the obsession with personality clashes and snap judgments, the fixation on crises and instant fixes, the impatience and wild mood swings of a football club chasing a morale-boosting three points every Saturday. Who “won” prime minister’s questions? Can Boris Johnson turn it around? What is the Sue Gray report, what time does it start and what channel is it on?
In many ways, Johnson was the logical culmination of this process: a lightweight and unprincipled politician who treated the job as if it were pure sport, a game in which the primary objective was simply to outmanoeuvre the opposition and win at any cost. Naturally, he was fully prepared to harness the popular appeal of football to this end.
He enthusiastically opposed the European Super League despite hosting Manchester United’s Ed Woodward at Downing Street just days earlier and declaring it – according to a government source – “a great idea”. Likewise the abortive joint British-Irish 2030 World Cup bid, which was in many ways the ideal Johnsonian project: an opportunity to wear hi-vis jackets, blazon his patriotism and make lavish spending promises without having to answer for a single one of them.
In contrast to her predecessor, who as mayor of London once declared that he supported “all the London clubs”, Truss is a Norwich fan. It has become de rigueur to ridicule politicians for their ham-fisted attempts to engage with the nation’s most popular sport, and naturally there are far more important and pressing reasons to be distrustful of a Truss premiership.
But if – as was widely reported last week – one of her first moves as prime minister will be to ignore the recommendations of the fan-led review into English football promised in the 2019 manifesto and published last November, it may just offer a quietly chilling portent of how she will approach government.
The review is not a perfect document. It has very little to say about state ownership, about women’s football, about the exploitation of young footballers or the sport’s toxic relationship with the gambling industry.
But its diagnoses are broadly correct: the fundamental disconnect between fans and owners, inadequate regulation at domestic level, wide and widening financial inequalities between the biggest and smallest clubs.
It suggests the establishment of an independent regulator and a 10% transfer levy on Premier League clubs to be distributed to the grassroots game. These are first steps, but good steps.
So who benefits if Truss decides to veto its recommendations? The Premier League, certainly, as well as the billionaire owners with a stake in it. The repressive regimes who for almost three decades under successive governments have been allowed to use our stadiums to launder their human rights abuses. Unscrupulous agents, who the report suggests should be subjected to tighter regulation.
Which is why Truss’s Revie comment was subtly revealing for a number of reasons. Revie may be a hero in Leeds, where he was responsible for their greatest and arguably only era of success, but he remains coldly disdained within the English game more generally. Perhaps Truss knew this. Perhaps she didn’t. Either way, it demonstrated a trait that has defined the Conservative leadership in recent years: a brazen willingness to curry favour with one audience by showing two fingers to another.
Perhaps we should expect nothing less from a woman who as equalities minister criticised the taking of the knee before football games as “not the right thing to do”, and a form of “identity politics focused on symbols and gestures”, only to later urge Premier League players to boycott a potential Champions League final in St Petersburg in protest at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Look, of all the people who are going to be grievously disadvantaged by a Truss government, lower-league football clubs are probably some way down the list. But there is a wider ideology at work here: a prime minister committed to enriching the rich, who sees people first and foremost as customers, who promises sweeping change but appears to be stubbornly wedded to a status quo that privileges a cynical, mercenary few. Maybe, on reflection, Truss has a firmer understanding of modern football than we first thought.