Not wading but drowning. (Photo: Getty)
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If David Cameron can't bully the broadcasters, how's his EU renegotiation going to work out?

David Cameron has muffed his strategy as far as the debates are concerned. Even if he gets away with it, it's a bad sign if he ends up having to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU.

If David Cameron is returned to Downing Street this May, his jubilation will be short lived. As Ed Miliband's head rolls and Labour becomes a circular firing squad of recriminations, a nagging internal voice will be ruining the Tory leader's moment: “Hey Dave, how's that EU renegotiation going?” He'll try and push it aside, but the voice will get louder and louder: “Lovely day to repatriate some powers from Brussels, wouldn't y'say?” Worse, this voice will be less persistent and more polite than his backbenchers and previously friendly media allies.

If he has any self-awareness, Cameron should be beginning to question whether he's the right man for the job. One thing the TV debate furore has taught us is that Cameron's negotiating skills are pretty limited. If he can't influence Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC, what hope has he got persuading 27 other EU members to make terms noticeably more favourable to Britain by 2017?

The TV broadcasters were supposed to be a pushover. Bound by strict election impartiality laws, all that was required was for the Tories to make some positive but non-committal noises, play down the clock, shrug and say “we tried.” They just needed to avoid anything too provocative, like, oh, I don't know... writing an antagonistic open letter blaming their addressee for “a deeply unsatisfactory process”, while simultaneously ducking meetings. And they absolutely shouldn't send a insufferably chummy Grant Shapps on TV to repeat the inplausible accusation over and over again while heroically ignoring the interviewers' logical counter-points. 

Bullying the Beeb should be a cake-walk when you're holding a giant novelty cheque over its collective head, yet Cameron's team has somehow managed to be so obnoxious and inept that even they've summoned enough courage to bite the hand that feeds. Well, nibbled it. They're considering empty chairing the PM, but giving him his own one-man show for balance - a bit like slapping someone in the face, then driving them to A&E and demanding 24 hour care. But hey, maybe they'll surprise everyone and dress the Prime Minister's podium up as a giant pram, with a series of toys scattered around it. This not-so-subtle symbolism would neatly back up what the polls say everyone's thinking.

Even if the debates don't happen thanks to a legal logjam, Cameron has overplayed his hand. He'll be blamed, and seen as cowardly, calculating, conniving and a pick of other choice 'C' words. This sorry spectacle doesn't bode well for Europe. It seems our Prime Minister has just the one negotiating gear: 'agree to my terms, or I'm not playing'.

If he can't intimidate four broadcasters - one of whom is so timid that it's contemplating giving him An Evening with David Cameron as a peace offering - how on Earth is he going to get his way with 27 highly skilled politicians? Despite the higher stakes, his tactics have been eerily similar to date: complain loudly to alienate the people you need to ingratiate yourself too, and then threaten to leave if you don't get your way. Cameron won great respect from a supportively jingoistic press for using his EU veto in 2011, but far less column inches were devoted to the subsequent U turn when Europe collectively decided to ignore Brave Dave and push on regardless.

How does Cameron think this petulance plays out with the people he ultimately wants on his side? Thomas Matussek, a former German ambassador to Britain once told The Guardian, “The 'my way or the highway' strategy that Margaret Thatcher pioneered is certainly getting on a lot of Germans' nerves, because they feel Cameron is constantly setting ultimatums rather than trying seek compromises”. Cameron's unique take on the diplomatic charm offensive seems to hinge overwhelmingly on the offence part.

Sir John Major – much lampooned for being weak on Europe by his party – understood that Britain couldn't just demand to get everything its own way. He managed to achieve a couple of major concessions with the Mastricht Treaty, even though – as Andrew Rawnsley points out - none of our European partners wanted to give way. While Major built bridges, Cameron seems determined to jump up and down on them until they crumble.

Maybe I'm completely wrong, and Cameron is a stronger negotiator than I thought, but all the signs point to someone who never lost at Risk, because he used his 'veto' to pack up the board and go home. Ironically, his stubbornness with the broadcasters might make it moot: an empty chair in front of 22 million Britain's could remind them why they don't want him practicing his petulant poker face in Brussels.

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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