Time to take this season by the throat in the neck

It's half way through the season, time to take socks. I'm sitting here, with the Christmas games over, and it's no clearer who will win the Premiership. Awfully crowded, innit, though those wiser than me are naming four teams. I think only one will win it, personally, and I'll give you that name in a wee minute. First, let's look back over the half-season.

Best news Graham Kelly going. Very like Mandelson going. Both guilty of dodgy judgements involving money and another person, which they hoped to keep secret. Then the so-called honourable and sudden resignation. Strange how football is so often like politics. And they each have a Big Bad Murdoch hovering off-stage.

The difference in their goings is that I have now almost forgotten what Graham Kelly looked like. He was a charisma-free zone and now he's gone. It's hard to believe he was ever here. Mandelson is still with us, still talked about, still being tipped for positions. Yet no one has mentioned the obvious. Chief executive of the FA. Get that application in, Pete.

Best players Who have done jolly well, so far. Zola, with all that talent, was bound to find form again, hence Chelsea's good run. Dion Dublin perhaps did best of all, but I sense his second half to the season might not be as good. Yorke and Cole together have done better than most predicted. Ditto Ginola, who was not expected to flourish under George Graham. Garry Barry, best newcomer, so far. And best name. OK, it's Gareth Barry, but I get a lot of simple pleasure out of saying to myself, now, is it Garry Barry or Barry Garry . . . ?

Most disappointing players Most is expected of strikers. They get the most praise when they perform, and the most stick when they don't. Shearer and Ferguson have done little, Michael Owen only a little more. Robbie Fowler is but a shadow, but the saddest has been Kevin Davies at Blackburn. What ails him? Is it lack of confidence? That's what they always say in football, even managers, and naturally that makes the poor buggers worse. If modern medicine can invent Viagra to boost the penis, why can't they find something to boost the ego?

Leonhardsen, a midfielder, is a more curious but equally sad case. He was so vital, so creative at Wimbledon, yet the moment he arrived at Liverpool he seemed to shrink. It doesn't appear to be just a matter of confidence. More of environment. People can be with the wrong team, at the wrong time, in the wrong surroundings. It happens in politics, and in journalism. I remember Jill Tweedie coming to the Independent from the Guardian, writing the same sort of stuff, yet she wasn't as good. Somehow the setting, the ambience, the surroundings, didn't suit. As for Suzanne Moore leaving the Indy for the Mail on Sunday, how long before she decides she's joined the wrong team?

Puzzles of the season so far How do you pronounce AXA, that new lot sponsoring the FA Cup? Gawd knows. And those funny symbols that look like Oxo and stand for a PlayStation, whatever that is. A simpler puzzle is why only Premiership players have their names on the backs of their shirts. Is it because players and supporters in the First, Second and Third Divisions can't read?

Best quotes of the season I write them down, all the pearls, as they trickle from the mouths of the babes, the suckling pigs and the Big Rons, he's my favourite. He was perceptive on David Beckham: "He hasn't got a great technique, technically." Barry Venison also scored high points with: "They must concentrate on the way they've concentrated." But my best so far has been Trevor Steven doing an expert commentary: "They've got the game by the throat in the neck."

Worst football TV programme Mentioning Barry Venison has reminded me. When I was trying to forget. Have you seen On the Ball, ITV's Saturday lunchtime programme? It's a must, if only to try and work out the rationale. His partner is Gabby Yorath, who has a degree in law, so she should be able to talk some sense, oh yeah. She also comes from a football family, so must have picked up something, yet she is there as the token airhead. Barry wears his intellectual specs and his job is to talk sense. But they are defeated by the length of every item, every thought, which lasts about three seconds, presumably because the attention span of all viewers is assumed to be four seconds. It makes Gary Lineker look like a fellow of All Souls.

Most worrying news The report that Ashley Ward of Barnsley, in the First Division, has turned down Blackburn of the Premiership as they have been really, really mean and won't pay him £1 million a year. Has the world gone mad? Not at all. That's clearly normal pay for a run-of-the-mill, pretty average, only half-decent striker who's 28 and never played for a top club. Where will it end? And how do economists explain it? I meant to ask my neighbour Sir Alan Budd when I met him yesterday but he was too busy telling me about his new and wonderful pension scheme, sorry, new position as Provost of Queen's. Lucky beggar. I'm the same age. Yet no one has offered me such a nice job. Oh well. Might as well send that application off to the FA, before Pete gets ahead of me . . .

Predictions I don't see Aston Villa lasting the pace. Yes, all season that's been predicted, and they've still done brilliantly. Arsenal won't keep up the pace, either. Chelsea will, till almost the very end, then be tipped at the post by Man Utd. Right, now eat this prediction after burning it, so in May I can deny all knowledge . . .

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An earthquake strikes new Labour

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The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.