The Boris Show: what happens next?

A spot of travel and picking fights with Osborne will keep the London mayor amused once the Olympics are over.

Boris Johnson was hardly going to let the Olympics slip past him unexploited. As I noted in my column last week, the opportunity to use the games as a festival of self-promotion constitutes the Mayor of London's special reward for being the most electable Tory around. It is hard to imagine David Cameron basking in chants of "Dave! Dave! Dave!" at a vast Hyde Park rally. There is something about Johnson that zoinks -  so to speak - where other Conservatives don't.

Boris's Olympian hogging of the limelight has, I gather, been a source of some irritation to other politicians who are rarely sated with publicity. Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has been raising hackles on Team Boris with his attempts to get in on the act. Olympics = sport = Jeremy, says the DCMS; London = Boris so back off, comes the City Hall rejoinder.

Meanwhile, provoking chatter about Boris's chances of succeeding Cameron was a poll for ConservativeHome naming him the activists' favourite. I stand by my column analysis that this is more a proxy expression of dismay and disappointment with the current leader than serious contemplation of Boris as Prime Minister. There are many obstacles to Johnson actually becoming leader (some of which I explore here; Steve Richards also picks up the theme in his Independent column today). 

Aside from the technical impediments - such as Boris not actually being an MP - there is the much more serious question of irresponsibility and pathological unseriousness. As one former Boris staffer said to me recently in a tone of weary incredulity aiming to kill off the idea of Prime Minister Johnson: "Just imagine him for a second in charge of defence."

Labour are certainly not taking the Johnson threat too seriously. The view at the top of the party is that Boris has reached his natural political altitude. One senior shadow cabinet minister told me at the time of the London mayoral election that Boris's success was an expression of the executive weakness of the post he was applying for. Voters could be relaxed about hiring a semi-comic figurehead because they fully understood that doing so had few real consequences. That would not be true in a general election where a crucial element in deciding how people vote (this shadow cabinet minister said) is "the fear factor" - what happens if this mildly ridiculous person actually wins?

Meanwhile, Boris is clearly determined to raise his candidacy beyond the novelty level. That aspiration is hardly helped by his hope, expressed to aides (as I revealed last week), of overseeing the city on a part time basis after the Olympics. But presumably he will use his free time to burnish his credentials as a serious national figure - and even an international one - capable of holding more august office. One way City Hall folk expect Boris to liven up  his job once the Olympic excitement has worn off is more foreign travel. It was felt in the first term that too much gallivanting around the globe as an "ambassador for London" would not have been received very well. One too many junkets and it might have looked as if Boris was neglecting his manor. But in the wake of the games, and the higher profile that has afforded the mayor, Boris now apparently feels liberated to go out and about drumming up investment from foreign companies and businesses. The idea is that the Magnetic Mayor's Roadshow will attract capital to the capital. He can then turn to the nation with a pitch along the lines: "Behold! London growing and replete with jobs. Witness how it has outperformed the rest of the country."

Another pursuit to pass the time productively will be picking fights with the Chancellor over funding for the capital. London as a region is a net contributor to the Exchequer and Boris intends to haggle noisily to secure, as he sees it, a bigger share of his constituents' cash. That also creates ample opportunities for the sport described by one source as "jabbing George in the ribs". It is only once the Olympics are gone that the games really begin.

Boris's Olympian hogging of the limelight has been a source of some irritation to other politicians. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era