Mike Lee describes the time following Labour’s defeat in the 1992
general election as something of a ’career crisis’. Until then the
newly-appointed communications and public affairs director at European
football’s governing body Uefa had been a trusted researcher for the
then shadow local government spokesman David Blunkett. In the wake of
defeat, and in the consequent absence of a prestigious special adviser
post, Lee felt he was in a rut.
The crisis must have seemed small beer to a man who had watched his
father have his working life cut cruelly short by a mining accident in
which he lost a leg. Indeed, given Lee’s early years in the urban grime
of Sunderland’s Boldon colliery, you might think he is lucky to have
even reached the cusp of national power.
Whether or not luck played a hand, advance planning seems to have had
little to do with it. Uncertain of what to do with his life, Lee - a
grammar school scholarship boy who read PPE at Oxford - stumbled from
one occupation to another. He worked as a psychiatric nursing assistant
for a year after graduation, before taking a PGCE and spending two years
as a school teacher in Leicester.
As a Labour councillor and activist in the East Midlands, Lee proved a
hit, becoming Labour’s youngest ever full-time regional organiser and
helping win the party two marginal seats against the tide in 1987. Lee
eventually landed a job with local MP Jim Marshall which took him to
Within two years Blunkett had asked him to apply for the senior
researcher post, in which he remained until 1993.
The ensuing seven years at Westminster Strategy were Lee’s introduction
to public affairs. During his time there he rose from being an account
manager to being MD Michael Burrell’s deputy. He played a key role in
securing the agency’s Premier League account and, despite leaving WS
last September, remained attached to the league until this month. For
the chief spokesman of one of the richest football leagues in the world
there seemed to be only one better PR job in football: communications
head at Uefa, European soccer’s governing body. Now he has that too.
’I am passionate about football, I am passionate about politics, and I
love working with the media,’ he says. There is a drawback, of course,
in that his family will have to cope with the upheaval of a partial move
to the town of Uefa’s headquarters, Nyon, on Lake Geneva in
His seven-year old son, and the 17-year-old son of his partner, former
Lambeth council chief executive Heather Rabbatts, are likely to see a
lot of Heathrow airport in the years to come, but the opportunity, he
stresses, seemed too good to pass up.
The move leaves Lee’s plans to set up in business with Rabbatts on ice,
at least for now. He is thought to have touted their idea - for an
integrated PR, public affairs and change management consultancy - around
some of the major agencies, and had lined up the necessary support to
get it off the ground. Rabbatts’ decision to take up a CEO position with
an e-commerce start-up, and Lee’s own move, have ’put that whole idea on
a very large shelf’, he says.
So what can Uefa expect from Lee? Former colleagues and associates are
unanimous that Lee has an unrivalled grip on the dynamics of football,
politics and the news media. Burrell praises him as ’a shrewd
strategist, of clear benefit to Uefa’.
Lee’s temperament is known to be on the fiery side, a point on which
Burrell is shamelessly diplomatic: ’In any consultancy you bring
complimentary skills to the job. Our styles were completely different. I
am the master of understatement, whereas Mike favours the
straightforward, no nonsense approach,’ he says.
While this straightforwardness may help in negotiations on football
rights or over a piece of media coverage with which Lee is unhappy, it
can sometimes boil over. Andy Burnham, the special adviser to culture
secretary Chris Smith with whom Lee worked on the government’s football
task force, admits there were times when the pair disagreed. ’We’ve had,
as the cliche goes, full and frank exchanges of views.’ Uefa ought to
hope Lee’s reputation for delivery proves more durable than his
reputation for getting cross.
With so much time taken up by flying to and fro in Europe, Lee is
unlikely to be able to turn out for his regular football team, which
includes other senior administrators of the beautiful game. Surprisingly
for someone who boasts of never planning a career move, Lee has thought
of this. In fact he has firm plans to join Uefa’s over-40s team just as
soon as he arrives.
1985: Labour councillor in Leicester
1989: Adviser to David Blunkett
1993: Account manager to deputy MD, Westminster Strategy, Spokesman for
the Premier League
2000: Director of communications and public affairs, Uefa.