The 2018 World Cup is, by every measure, a long way off. Fifa intends to take three years to decide on which continent the tournament should be hosted, and only then start thinking about a specific country. Even the Football Association (which would submit a bid for England) has not yet come to a decision. But one fan is agitating already. Gordon Brown has commissioned a Treasury feasibility study and is already talking up Britain’s chances. The football world may not be ready, but the British political calendar cannot wait.
There is something about a campaign for a sporting tournament which allows a politician to speak on a special frequency to sports fans: the ref’s whistle rather than the dog whistle, so to speak. And the message Mr Brown wants to broadcast is: ‘I am like you. Well — perhaps not exactly, but more so than David Cameron and his friends.’ Football may be an international language, but it is not one Etonians tend to speak well. Such considerations are at the forefront of Mr Brown’s mind as he prepares for his own general election tournament in 2009, and a match which may yet go to penalties.
The Chancellor knows that the Conservatives are already attacking him personally for being a political obsessive or, as one shadow Cabinet member recently put it to me, ‘Dr Spock without the human bits.’ There is worse to come. ‘We will get very personal,’ warns another senior Cameron lieutenant. ‘Brown sanctioned vicious attacks on William Hague in the 2001 election. So we will certainly play hardball.’ Mr Brown stands ready, bat in hand.
A veil has been drawn over the embarrassing attempts to show his human side. He has ditched the suggestion that he listens to the Arctic Monkeys on his iPod. He would rather forget the time he mentioned Hotel Rwanda to a Radio 1 interviewer who asked him what film he’d take her to see on a date. The strategy now is to bring out the Real Gordon: a heavyweight politician with real likes, loves and passions. Football is genuinely one of them, and roasting Conservatives is another.
The disclosure that David Cameron was punished for smoking marijuana at Eton has had little immediate political impact. The more significant event was the widespread republication of a picture of Mr Cameron with members of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. There he stood, resplendent in the £1,200 tailcoats worn by members of the club for their heavy drinking escapades. It is the very image of the Brideshead-style privilege and decadence which Mr Brown has despised all his adult life: public school, Oxford, England.
So far, Mr Brown has been dissuaded from playing the class card, especially while the Labour party is led by an Old Fettesian. He has been warned by the Blairites that inverted snobbery will no longer wash with the British public. But we can expect his instincts to get the better of him once they are gone. He will present himself as a quiet, football-supporting man dedicated to improving Britain.
Yet this (and the accompanying denigration of Mr Cameron) is only a small part of a grander strategy. His wider ambition is to link Labour inextricably with a series of popular themes. The success of the Republicans in America has not flowed from the popularity of George W. Bush, but from the party’s ability to forge a great alliance with faith groups, the gun lobby and organisations opposed to gay marriage. The Chancellor has scoured the social landscape for similar issues that he can take up in order to form his own Labour version of this electoral model. People may not vote Labour because they like him, but they might be persuaded to do so in the name of a higher goal — such as the alleviation of Third World poverty.
The Make Poverty History campaign in the summer of 2005 fascinated the Chancellor’s allies. Here were supposedly apathetic young people turning up to work with plastic wristbands visibly identifying themselves with a political cause. The novelty of Make Poverty History was that it did not ask people to do anything about poverty themselves, but simply urged them to demand that governments did so on their behalf. It moved politicians to the centre stage.
The Chancellor was interested in African aid long before it was fashionable. His own pet idea is a money-raising device called the International Finance Facility. It is a typical Brownian accounting fiddle, proposing a £50 billion multinational loan constructed in such a way that it doesn’t show up on anyone’s national books. By raiding aid budgets of the future, it would deliver the money which agencies were demanding now.
So the IFF policy is his means of aligning the aims of anti-poverty campaigners with those of Labour. The wristband-wearers may consider Mr Brown a boring old curmudgeon, but his policies, in his view, deliver what they want. And just as a World Cup bid may resonate on the terraces, the Make Poverty History campaign takes politics beyond its normal boundaries into British schools, church halls and even into the Vatican — where the Chancellor presented it to the Pope last week.
The idea of a papal blessing for the IFF perfectly fits his strategy. People may have little enthusiasm for the PM-in-waiting himself, but they are likely to respect at least one of the outsiders who have endorsed him, such as Nelson Mandela, Alan Greenspan and even a smattering of campaigning Hollywood figures such as Angelina Jolie. He wishes to contrast himself with Mr Cameron, who has thus far managed only to win the explicit endorsement (in this magazine) of the US presidential contender, John McCain.
For their part, the Cameroons need no tuition on how popular trends can enliven politics. But while Mr Brown seeks to harness existing trends, Mr Cameron is confident that he can start his own. His aides believe that they put global warming into the British political mainstream, and can do so again with other issues — changing Britain by exhortation rather than legislation. It is typical of the audacity with which Mr Cameron won his party’s leadership, but an approach likely to be tested to its limits at election time.
While the Conservatives may see the Chancellor as the embodiment of the old politics, it would be a profound error to believe he has no talent or aptitude for spin. Since he walked into 11 Downing Street, the British economy has performed worse than any other in the English-speaking world. The fact that almost no one in Britain seems to believe this is testament to the brilliance with which Mr Brown has sold his own story. His methods of spin may be different from, and less obvious than, those deployed by Mr Blair. But Mr Cameron has no reason to expect they will be any less powerful.