OPINION - BBC backs down on Gary Lineker and says ‘sorry’

 (Ben Turner)
(Ben Turner)

It must feel discouraging. Imagine winning election after election. Throw in a couple of referendums for good measure. You’ve earned the power to pass laws, move fast and break things. You also enjoy the latitude to appoint coteries and contemporaries to top jobs across the bureaucracy. Yet you look around and still feel as if your side is losing.

The brouhaha over the BBC, Gary Lineker and his tweets about immigration policy have dominated the news cycle for days. In some ways, this is an absurdity. First, it distracts from the practicalities of the Illegal Migration Bill, which returns to the Commons for its second reading today.

Second, there is plenty else going on. America’s largest bank collapse since 2008 – and a potentially devastating impact on UK tech firms averted by HSBC. The Budget is on Wednesday. And we are still very much on course for catastrophic climate change.

But this newsletter isn’t one for pearl-clutching. The Lineker episode is important, and not because of questions over BBC impartiality or even his choice of analogy, though I do think the comparison with 1930s Germany – and by implication, the genocide it led to – was tremendously ill-judged. Because at its core, this is a story about power, who wields it and what ends it might feasibly achieve.

Rishi Sunak may be the leader of the Conservative Party, but this is not a debate he relishes. Since replacing Liz Truss, the prime minister has sought to calm the rhetoric and instead focus on securing tangible policy goals. To that end, Sunak has moved to reassure the markets following the disastrous ‘mini-Budget’ and more recently achieved substantive policy successes, particularly in the foreign arena.

Sunak has secured the Windsor Framework, obtaining changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol. On Friday, he reset relations with France and is today in the US, looking convincingly world leader-y discussing the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal. And yet the last two weeks have been dominated by scandals of the past: Matt Hancock and lockdown followed by Boris Johnson and parties. Lineker is only the latest distraction.

Sunak rose up the Tory ranks as the consummate Brexiteer, but he governs as a classic incrementalist. He does this in part through a genuine belief that this is how leaders ought to behave, but also because he views competent administration as the surest way to restore Tory electoral fortunes. The problem is, many in his party and the wider conservative ecosystem no longer seem to agree.

They want wins – in memes, hearts and minds. How else to explain these tweets from Tory MPs about Match of the Day? The problem for the prime minister is that some of his colleagues and natural supporters have had enough of his sort of winning. Instead, they yearn for a different kind – one that repeated victories at the ballot box seem incapable of securing.

Elsewhere in the paper, we’ve got the Oscars 2023 covered. Like, did the best films actually win? Who was the best dressed on that weird champagne carpet? Michelle Yeoh making history with her best actress win. Paul Mescal making us swoon by taking his mum as his date. Elizabeth Banks blaming Cocaine Bear as she tripped up on the stage. And, of course, that awkward Hugh Grant interview.

In the comment pages, Stephen King says the Bank of England appears to be as confused as everybody when it comes to the outlook for interest rates. While Melanie McDonagh applauds Sir David Attenborough’s latest series for making Britain’s flora and fauna as exciting and worthy of protection as the African savannah.

And finally, Josh Barrie and I agree on a food that can ‘do one’ – cheesecake. Just say no.

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