Just under three years ago, Geoffrey Boycott was waiting patiently in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Delhi. He was in India to cover the Test series against England for BBC Radio, and as luck would have it Theresa May was in town on an official trade mission. Not only that, but the pair would be staying in the same hotel. Never a man to take his eye off the main chance, Boycott resolved to secure an audience.
Hours passed. Still no sign of the prime minister. Still Boycott waited. A group of lobby journalists recognised the former England captain and Boycott cheerfully offered them his views on the new prime minister. “She’ll be like Margaret Thatcher, she’ll be brilliant,” he said. Then, in a knowing reference to his own reputation for dour batting, he added: “She’s got a few more strokes than me!”
The admiration was mutual. May has frequently described Boycott as her sporting hero, even admitting to once having had his poster on her wall. Nevertheless, Boycott did not get his audience in Delhi that day. Evidently someone in May’s team, forewarned of his intentions, had quickly detected the potential hazard in a prime minister – one who had made tackling domestic violence a central plank of her policy platform – being photographed alongside a man with a criminal conviction for hitting his girlfriend in the face.
And so not until May left office would she and Boycott be able to consummate their remote flirtation. The announcement last week that Boycott had been awarded a knighthood in May’s resignation honours list managed to be both extremely surprising and extremely unsurprising at once. Unsurprising because there was so clearly a desperate votive element to it: the prime minister who had fulfilled virtually none of her actual pledges but could at least keep this one, made to her teenage self in an austere Oxfordshire bedroom many years ago.
Surprising because she must have had some inkling of how people would react. It took roughly four seconds for the announcement of Boycott’s knighthood to be greeted with paroxysms of condemnation, most stemming from his conviction in 1998 for assaulting his then girlfriend, Margaret Moore, in an Antibes hotel room. The judge in the original French court case expressed her disbelief. Moore herself described the decision as “disgusting”. Labour demanded that the honour be rescinded. Boycott, for his part, responded to the disquiet over his ennoblement with customary Yorkshire bluster. “I couldn’t give a toss, love,” he told the Today programme.
So why Boycott? And – more pertinently – why now? Perhaps the really interesting part of Boycott’s knighthood is the way it reflects broader trends in our society and politics: the rapidly shifting window of what is deemed acceptable and what is deemed beyond the pale.
It’s often forgotten that for several years after the court case, Boycott was persona non grata in this country. The Sun sacked him as a columnist. Sky and the BBC both dispensed with his services. Short of work and short of friends, Boycott was forced abroad, commentating for foreign broadcasters, doing a little freelance coaching work.
Boycott the exile: it was a status he knew well. As a player, he had gone into self-imposed exile from international cricket in the 1970s after being passed over for the captaincy in favour of the mild-mannered company man Mike Denness. In the 1980s, he in effect cut short his England career by going on a rebel tour of apartheid South Africa. And in retirement it was a persona he continued to cultivate, as an acerbic commentator and trenchant newspaper columnist.
In his politics, too, Boycott swam obstinately against the tide. Ahead of the 1997 election, he publicly endorsed James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party. A few years later he aligned himself with the rise of Ukip, railing against “the way governments of all colours have handed powers to Brussels without the British people having a say in the matter”.
None of this felt very important at the time. This was the heyday of New Labour, after all, and so as Boycott began his professional comeback, first with Channel Four during the 2005 Ashes and later returning to Test Match Special, his unsavoury past and occasional on-air rants about inheritance tax could be written off as the rambling eccentricities of a lovable lunatic.
In 2015, May – then home secretary – made her first attempt to sneak Boycott on to the honours list. It was vetoed by the Cabinet Office, a recognition that even after all these years, Boycott was still reckoned too extreme for mainstream recognition. But as May herself would surely attest, a lot can change in four years.
The rapid shift in the political weather since Brexit – a cause that Boycott vocally championed – has seen his brand of armchair populism resurrected, dusted down and put on breakfast television. And so in recent years Boycott has found himself back in vogue, his misdemeanours elided or explained away, the political views once deemed beneath consideration now recast as the authentic voice of reason. “Most people are fed up with Brexit,” he bellowed on ITV’s Good Morning Britain a few months back. “We fought two world wars and we came out on top. We’re a strong people.”
Now, with royal assent, the rehabilitation is complete. There was a poignant tableau at the Oval on Sunday, where Boycott took a break from commentating on the final Ashes Test to toast his triumph with a close personal friend: the millionaire arch-Brexiteer Arron Banks. And to watch them clinking champagne glasses, these two scourges of the establishment, now unexpectedly thrust into the very centre of things, was to be struck by a curious thought: perhaps this is what the establishment looks like now.
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control