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Illustration by David Foldvari.
Illustration by David Foldvari.
Illustration by David Foldvari.

Rishi Sunak’s football video is a political own goal

David Mitchell

The PM’s scattergun attempts at image projection tell us nothing about who he really is

Have you seen the video Rishi Sunak put out last month wishing Stockton Town FC luck in the Northern Premier League final? Warning: don’t watch it if you’re hoping to vote Conservative at the next election or you won’t be able to. It’s dreadful. I don’t understand how he could be so inept as to record it, or why anyone watching it back wouldn’t wipe it unless they were working directly for Keir Starmer.

The problem is not the words he says. It’s vanishingly unlikely he had anything to do with the script, which is made clear by the way he delivers it. That is the problem. He speaks with enormous energy, enthusiasm, a big smile and not a trace of sincerity. No one on earth would think he means what he’s saying. Someone who understood not a word of English would nevertheless discern that whatever he was going on about was something about which he did not give a single lonely shit. Not a lie, just a statement with which he had zero emotional connection.

I don’t know what the prime minister was thinking about while he let his face and voice do that, but it was nothing to do with the Northern Premier League final. He may have been pondering the looming disaster of the local elections, the threats to his leadership within the Tory party, the high rate of inflation, or maybe it was simply that his balls were in a vice.

If so, a major suspect for the vice operator (vice chancellor? Head of vice?) would be Stockton’s MP, Matt Vickers, one of those red wall Tory MPs whom Boris Johnson conjured into existence only for them then to be condemned by fate. A historical blip, like Vichy France, the Latin emperors of Byzantium or a snowman in Regent’s Park. If Vickers were a fatalistic sort, he’d be taking nostalgic selfies in the Palace of Westminster and planning the next phase of his life. Instead he was making Rishi Sunak say: “Your local MP Matt Vickers has been telling me about all the action down at Bishy Road!”

Are we expected to believe that conversation happened? That the video wasn’t just a feeble attempt to prop up a doomed MP with 27 seconds of the prime minister’s time? That Sunak had a good old chinwag with Vickers about the moderate success being temporarily enjoyed by a minor league football team in his constituency? They’re claiming it literally occurred. Has the PM got time for that sort of chat? If he did, would that be how he’d spend it?

We don’t really know. Last weekend he went to watch his home team, Southampton, get relegated from the Premier League. Maybe he genuinely loves football. What else does he like? People say he wears expensive clothes. It annoys them so I suppose he’d stop if he wasn’t into it. So, clothes. What else? According to the Spectator: “Colleagues tease him for his taste in music (Michael Bublé), television (Emily in Paris) and literature (Jilly Cooper CBE). One of his favourite novels is Cooper’s first ‘bonkbuster’, Riders.” His spokesperson was unable to confirm or deny this last enthusiasm, adding: “I think previously he’s said that one of his favourite books is The Count of Monte Cristo.”

Does this ring any truer than the tone with which he said: “Good luck the Anchors!”? (Stockton’s nickname. They were not, in case you were wondering, blessed with luck – they did a bish at Bishy Road and lost on penalties.) I have never read either Riders or The Count of Monte Cristo, but they strike me as quite different. Is this the product of conflicting attempts at image projection? Or is he a wide and voracious reader, particularly drawn to themes of copulation and revenge?

I’m a musical philistine so won’t comment on his supposed Bublé proclivity, but I love TV and Emily in Paris is terrible. It’s as hard to watch as the Stockton video. I don’t like worthy or heavy-going programmes but, if a show is denuded of everything that remotely matters on any level, it becomes heavy-going in a different way. I can’t believe it could be enjoyed by anyone for whom I have an iota of intellectual respect.

Does he really like it? In that case, for all his intelligence and success, he must be, at heart, an idiot. Or does he just think it’s the sort of thing people will like him for saying he likes? In that case he thinks we’re idiots – or rather the constituency he is aiming to appeal to are idiots. That would encroach on Liz Truss’s support base.

What I’m asking is: who is he? His scattergun attempts to answer that question just re-raise it in italics. In the world of panel shows where I have spent much time, successful panellists need to say things the audience finds funny. But, before that, they need to be recognisable as a type of person viewers can understand. It can lead to contributors projecting self-parodying versions of themselves but it needs to be a projection of something true or the audience connection is broken. You can’t get away with pretending to be someone you’re not, and you can’t be more than one person at once: your favourite book can be The Count of Monte Cristo or Riders, but not both.

To be anyone at all you will inevitably be someone some people don’t like. Boris Johnson understood this and, for years, his unashamedly flawed persona was taken as refreshingly real. Sadly, of all the skills required to be prime minister, this turned out to be the only one he possessed. But most of his predecessors allowed a sense of their true self, albeit positively spun, to come through. Sunak is giving us nothing.

Two weeks ago a new king was crowned whose views and irascibility are well known. This is a problem in a monarch. Messages of vacuous good luck to local football teams are the House of Windsor’s stock-in-trade. Complaints about pens and lateness, and adherence to dubious alternative medical practices, are not. Charles III should take a leaf out of his mother’s book and conceal his personality. Sunak should follow the example of his king and show that he’s got one.

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