Jon Craig: How the top teams are lining up for next season

Written by Jon Craig on 1 August 2017 in Opinion

Jeremy Corbyn is keeping his squad in training throughout the summer close season, claiming he's ready for an election replay.

It’s August, which means the start of a new football season. And after a general election that produced a shock result as big as Leicester City winning the Premier League last year, politics is also kicking off.
Theresa May, whose blues narrowly escaped relegation to the Opposition benches on June 8, has hired new backroom staff to sharpen up her team’s defence and attack. And despite dressing room unrest and calls for her to be sacked as team manager after the election penalty shoot-out failed to produce a clear winner, she has survived. For now.

But with a tough campaign in Europe ahead, will she still be in charge at the end of the 2017-18 season? She has, after all, been too weak after June 8 to drop underperfoming or disloyal members of her top team and order them to train with the juniors on the back benches.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn, whose reds surprised many of their own supporters by reaching the election play-offs in June, is keeping his squad in training throughout the summer close season, claiming he's ready for an election replay.

Like his hero Arsene Wenger, manager of his beloved Arsenal, the UK’s leading left-winger faced calls to quit in 2016-17 after poor team performances. But both white-haired veterans have won a reprieve this summer: Wenger for beating the blues of Chelsea to win the FA cup and Corbyn for giving Theresa May’s blues a fright in the general election.

So, on the evidence of the Conservative and Labour teams’ performances in recent weeks, all the signs are that the 2017-18 political season will be very different from the last. The Downing Street backroom changes are already making a difference. And the malcontents in Jeremy Corbyn’s team are now grudgingly accepting that his tactics weren’t such an own goal after all.

The PM was fortunate to pick up ex-MP Gavin Barwell, her new chief of staff, on a free transfer, after punters at his old club, Croydon Cental, decided on June 8 that they wanted a red instead of a blue up front. He looks like a good signing, already winning plaudits from team-mates in the Cabinet and doing the job of two former players, Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, who had their contracts terminated abruptly after a dressing room revolt.

Then the PM signed a former blue, the one-time Michael Portillo and Francis Maude aide Robbie Gibb, from the BBC as her new director of communications, though probably not on a Gary Lineker-style salary!

Within the past week, one senior Cabinet minister has told me the election campaign was a “horror show”, but says that No. 10 is now functioning much better. Tightening up the defence, you might say.

But the Tories have also added firepower to their attack, rethinking their strategy for tackling Jeremy Corbyn and targeting their attack on his student fees policy instead of his support for Irish republican causes. “Attacking Jeremy Corbyn for his links to the IRA had no influence at all on voters under 40,” my Cabinet pal told me wearily. “That’s ancient history as far as they’re concerned.”
By attacking Corbyn on student debt, the Tories have not only improved their tactics but also shown that they are prepared to resort to gamesmanship and play the man, not the ball. The claim that he lied to voters and made a U-turn on a pledge to write off student debts is about as honest as a centre forward diving in the penalty area to con a referee into awarding a spot kick.

The target of the Tory attack has been an interview given by the Labour leader to the New Musical Express six days before the election. It was reported at the time that he had hinted he would wipe out debt for thousands of graduates, though it didn't get a lot of coverage. But while Labour’s pledge to abolish tuition fees was a major part of its election campaign, there was no promise to write off student debts - worth £100 billion - in the party’s manifesto.
In his NME interview, Mr Corbyn said: “Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it yet - I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all this - but I’m very well aware of that problem.

"And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it."

How he must have wished he had ended his answer before his short, five-word sentence at the end, however.

Asked about the Tory attacks by Andrew Marr on his end-of-season Sunday morning show last week, he said: “I recognised it was a huge burden, I did not make a commitment we would write it off because I couldn’t at that stage. I pointed out we had written the manifesto in a short space of time because it was a surprise election but that we would look at ways of reducing that debt burden, recognising quite a lot of it is never going to be collected anyway and try and reduce that.”

That won't silence the Tory attacks, however. Expect more tough tackling ahead. And if there is to be an early replay of June 8, expect a lot more Conservative scrutiny of Labour's spending plans, which went largely unchallenged in the first leg, because hardly anyone - not least Labour MPs - expected a Corbyn victory.

The next big dates on the political fixture list are the party conferences. Before Labour and the Conservatives, it's the Liberal Democrats under their new leader, Vince Cable, in Bournemouth. Think of Vince as the Harry Redknapp (now managing Championship strugglers Birmingham City) of politics: a wise-cracking and wily 70+ veteran making a comeback and desperately trying drag his team back into the Premier League.

After a summer in which he plans to maintain election fitness with yet more rallies and campaigning, Jeremy Corbyn will be greeted like a hero by his adoring fans at Labour's conference in Brighton. And although someone should tell some of the Corbynistas that Labour actually didn't win on June 8, I predict a repeat in the conference hall of the "Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!" chant that rocked Glastonbury this summer.

Theresa May, on the other hand, will simply want to survive the Tory conference. Not many visiting teams come away from Manchester with a result, after all.

My prediction here is that we may see the type of stage managed applause for the PM that was orchestrated by party staff for Iain Duncan Smith's Tory conference speech in 2003. Mind you, a fat lot of good it did IDS then - he was forced out by Conservative MPs just weeks later.

If she survives the Tory conference, Theresa May will be judged like the top Premier League managers, on how her team performs in Europe. The big difference between football and politics of course, is that the top Premier League teams compete every year to get into Europe.

For the next couple of seasons in politics, apart from those Remainers who want a second EU referendum, our top politicians are battling week in week out to get us out of Europe. I'm not sure which is harder: qualifying for the Champions' League or sorting out Brexit.




Picture by: John Stillwell/PA Wire/PA Images.

About the author

Jon Craig is chief political correspondent at Sky News.

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