PM’s footie stunt won’t relieve the blues

So having just faced his worst week in politics since becoming PM, what was Tony Blair’s priority for the weekend? Why, to go on BBC’s Football Focus, of course. A chance to step away from the pressures of David Blunkett’s resignation and the controversy over the ‘terror bill’. But as PR stunts go, this has to be one of the dafter ones to come out of 10 Downing Street.

This is because Blair's claim to be a football fan has already been widely discredited. There is a famous anecdote in Westminster that Blair once appeared on a radio station to talk about football. He was asked about his first game but apparently 'couldn't remember'. He was then asked where he used to watch his team Newcastle, and he said that as a lad he sat in the Gallowgate end. Finally he was asked who his favourite player was, and he said Jackie Milburn.

Now real football fans knew immediately that such answers would prove Blair a phoney. 

After all, who couldn't remember their first game? To make matters worse there were no seats on the Gallowgate end when Blair was a kid.

And he couldn't have seen Milburn play because Blair was still in nappies when the great man hung up his boots.

The Downing Street press office knew Blair would be asked about this if he ever appeared on a football show, so it recently managed to dig up the original interview on BBC 5 Live. This did not include any reference to where the PM watched games as a lad and, crucially, he was heard to say that his favourite player was Malcolm Macdonald. Perhaps it was this that encouraged his spin doctors.

In terms of briefing he had a real advantage. David Hill isn't just a superb press secretary, but he's a football fanatic, as is his wife Hilary Coffman, who also works at Number 10.

And yet Blair ended up looking as uncomfortable on the Football Focus sofa as he did on Richard and Judy during the election.

Because he still doesn't really know what he's talking about.
It was a missed PR opportunity because he was lukewarm in his support for an FA bid for the 2014 World Cup, and failed to make any incisive comments about real fans' issues, such as high ticket prices and spiralling players' wages.

The news coverage of the appearance was lacklustre, if anything slightly mocking. After that performance, the Prime Minister is probably looking forward to the predictability of a grilling from John Humphrys.

charlie.whelan@haynet.com

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