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4 July 2018

Would England winning the World Cup bolster Theresa May’s position?

It’s coming home. 

By Stephen Bush

Football’s coming home, and could it be bringing a revival in Tory fortunes with it? England’s triumph on penalties – the first at a World Cup in the history of the men’s team – last night has, inevitably, caused speculation about what the political impact could be if England can go all the way.

Before the tournament, there was a great deal of worry about the propaganda boost that hosting the contest would hand to Vladimir Putin and the Russian government more generally. I crunched the numbers and found that there is no political benefit to be found in hosting the World Cup – but there is a small, fleeting boost to winning one.

As with all national achievements, voter appreciation is a wasting asset: the ruling Socialists got a big boost in the polls out of Spain’s 2008 European Championship, that country’s first major trophy for 44 years. But their centre-right replacements got a small boost from the 2010 World Cup and no boost at all from the 2012 European Championship.

England, you might have heard, haven’t won anything for 52 years so you’d expect there to be some joy in the polls for Theresa May and the government more generally if Gareth Southgate’s boys can win the thing. So should those people hoping to soften or stop Brexit, or to the defeat the government, start hoping and praying for a Sweden victory in the semi-finals? That’s the calculation that Alastair Campbell’s diaries reveal he wrestled with during Euro 1996, fearing that victory for England would mean a revival for John Major. (Spoiler alert: football did not come home in 1996 and John Major went home in 1997.)

Well, there are two big buts. The first “but” is that for all England’s approach play is easy on the eye, they struggle to score goals in open play and they have yet to keep a clean sheet in the tournament. The defensively frugal Swedes and an attack-minded Croatia side will both pose big problems, so the matter may well not arise.

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The second “but” is that while you’d expect a poll boost for the governing party, you wouldn’t expect it to last. So yes, if England do win the World Cup, you can expect one or two polls in the aftermath showing an increased Tory lead and perhaps a renewed surge of optimism about the Brexit process. But don’t expect that boost to be lasting or for it to have any impact on the fortunes of either Theresa May or Brexit.