"The death of competitive sports" is the right's favourite Straw Bogeyman

There's nothing wrong with having fun while getting fit, as this picture of David Cameron playing Badminton demonstrates.

David Cameron has been wearing a tracksuit top. Think about that for a moment. David Cameron, a man for whom a white tie and tails probably makes him feel a bit chavvy, has been dressing in a tracksuit.

In this, the year that the John Terry meme gained so much traction it began turning up in a Chelsea football kit ready to accept the glory awarded to other memes, our Prime Minister has taken a leaf out of the loveable Chelsea captain’s book and decided to try and claim the Olympics glow as his own.

Since we’ve become accustomed to ‘medalling’ and ‘podiuming’ as verbs in recent days, why not ‘johnterrying’ too? One could say: “David Cameron really tried to johnterry his way to a boost in the polls by wearing that Team GB tracksuit”. 

Sure, he might look as comfortable in that tracky as William Hague did in that baseball cap all those years ago, but he’s going to give it a go. Not so much the Iron Lady as the Polyester Chap, Cameron has gone further, too, and pressed a few Tory buttons by demanding that there should be a ‘competitive ethos’ in school sports.

It’s a favourite strawman of the Right, this idea that somehow children are kept from competitive sport at school, that somehow the Namby-Pamby Laughless Liberals and their PC Brigade are squashing the joy of splintering a fellow pupil’s shins with a cricket bat, all in the name of Anti-Fun Egalitarianism.

It’s not true, as parents can testify from the mass of muddy debris coming home in sportsbags of an afternoon, and pupils can testify from the lumps, bumps, grazes and bruises they sustain in trying to get a bladder over a line or into a net.

Yes, there are other, less competitive activities now being offered in schools as part of physical education – but no, it doesn’t mean that our cotton-wool-clad babes are being BANNED from WINNING at games because it might hurt their FEELINGS. Some children just prefer keeping fit by activities that require a different kind of discipline, concentration and skill. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. What’s wrong with sport for the purposes of enjoyment? Fun?

There’s something of the “Never did me any harm” attitude about all this, as there is about so much of this Government’s education policy. Let’s face it, this is hardly a cabinet of Jocks who were first to be picked when it came to making teams; these were the losers who got told to stand at silly mid-off in the hope a stray cricket ball might shatter their skulls. Because they suffered, and succeeded (if you deem success as ‘not quite winning a general election despite spending vast millions of pounds’), children today must suffer in order to succeed.

But wait a moment. Who’s this joker, prancing about the gardens of Number 10 Downing Street in his shirt sleeves, wafting a badminton racket around as if he’s trying to swat a fat, asthmatic fly? Why, it’s a pre-tracksuit David Cameron, having a laugh and a joke while playing sport.

Look, that’s a fine and praiseworthy thing, but... well. Odd. It’s almost as if this person is playing sport not with a “winning is everything” attitude in his mind, but for the purposes of... well, enjoyment. Fun. There doesn’t seem to be that ‘competitive ethos’ there at all. What a terrible example to set to children!

That’s the problem when you try and johnterry your way into things that you don’t really know enough about: you’re going to end up looking rather silly, sooner or later. Let the kids have their fun, and not worry about victory or defeat. They don’t want to end up the kind of real loser who wears a tracksuit, just to try and steal a little glory. 

David Cameron in a tracksuit. Photo: Getty
Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.