Tony Blair’s World Cup Dream

The England football team flew to Germany today carrying the hopes of a nation and one man in particular: Tony Blair. Blair has always been a lucky politician. Whenever he’s been in real trouble something comes along to take the pressure off. With David Cameron’s resurgent Conservatives ten points up in the polls and the ...

608417_BlairBeckham5.jpg
608417_BlairBeckham5.jpg

The England football team flew to Germany today carrying the hopes of a nation and one man in particular: Tony Blair.

Blair has always been a lucky politician. Whenever he's been in real trouble something comes along to take the pressure off. With David Cameron's resurgent Conservatives ten points up in the polls and the press fixated on a "last days" narrative, Blair desperately needs something to change the public mood. And what could be better than England winning the World Cup on foreign soil for the first time?

The good news for Blair is that for every day England are in the competition, there will be less space in the media for—and less interest in—news of the failure to deport foreign criminals, internal struggles, incompetence in the NHS, and the like. Equally the PM can expect to be the indirect beneficiary of any feel good factor and economic bounce created by a strong English performance.

The England football team flew to Germany today carrying the hopes of a nation and one man in particular: Tony Blair.

Blair has always been a lucky politician. Whenever he’s been in real trouble something comes along to take the pressure off. With David Cameron’s resurgent Conservatives ten points up in the polls and the press fixated on a “last days” narrative, Blair desperately needs something to change the public mood. And what could be better than England winning the World Cup on foreign soil for the first time?

The good news for Blair is that for every day England are in the competition, there will be less space in the media for—and less interest in—news of the failure to deport foreign criminals, internal struggles, incompetence in the NHS, and the like. Equally the PM can expect to be the indirect beneficiary of any feel good factor and economic bounce created by a strong English performance.

Another bonus for Blair is that a strong England performance will be tricky for his internal rival Gordon Brown to handle. Brown is a Scot. But he’s already rushed out to say he’ll be supporting England, unlike the First Minister of Scotland, who’ll be rooting for England’s first-round opponents, Trinidad and Tobago. Yet, if Brown tries to cash in on the Three Lions fervor, he risks being ridiculed. No one will really believe that a Scotsman is delighted that the auld enemy is triumphing. (It would be a little like a Boston Red Sox fan telling you that they cheered when the Yankees clinched the World Series.)

Now, Blair will have to plan his tactics even more carefully than Sven. If Blair attempts to climb on the bandwagon too unsubtly and make himself the national cheerleader, the electorate won’t buy it. (Leaders who have a minus 41 approval rating can’t get away with that.) But if Blair plays it safe and just offers the odd word of encouragement and doesn’t appear too keen, he’ll benefit. Why? Because a World Cup victory will make the English happier – and far harder to persuade that the country is going to hell in a handcart. On the other hand, if England gets knocked out early, the electorate will be in an even sourer mood. And that’s not good for Blair’s chances of making it through to the fall of 2007.

If Blair says that what he wants most this summer is an England victory, it’s not just populist posturing.

James Forsyth is assistant editor at Foreign Policy.

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