Tory leaders are starting to feel like England managers. We apparently always need a new one, to unlock the potential of the amazing world-class players, who for some reason consistently underperform, disappoint the support, and are hampered by excruciating big-stage ailments such as being unable to pass.
What happened at the top of the Conservative party in the wake of the EU referendum last summer was almost exactly what happened a few years ago when England was faced with a choice of Roy Hodgson or Harry Redknapp. Like Boris Johnson, ’Arry had long been thought of as rogueish but lovable, and held in professional regard far beyond that justified by his record. He had been extremely helpful to journalists down the years, and was consequently rather romanticised by them. Like Theresa May, Hodgson was considered boring, uninspired and not particularly popular – but safe, especially given what flash modernists had cost us. And you know what else? He’d never opened a Monaco bank account in the name of his dog . I’ll leave you to decide for which aspect of Boris’s life that move of Harry’s should serve as a euphemism.
Rather like Brexit, the England job was as much about managing expectations and decline as it was actually about managing a football side. Appointing Hodgson over Redknapp said that we understood where we were in our post-imperial journey, and had made our reluctant peace with it. We were tucked up in the twilight home of international life, watching Cash in the Attic with Switzerland. And yes, probably going out to them in the round-of-16. Appointing Theresa May over Boris Johnson said that we were mostly going to play for the draw, and had realised that we needed to learn to defend like a perfectly decent Championship side again.
Except we didn’t even do that. Like Hodgson’s appointment, May’s has turned out even less inspiring than had been expected. Was Wednesday’s horror show of a speech May’s defeat to Iceland? Some seem to think so. Still, at least she achieved her pre-election proposal to bring back bloodsports.
Leading the hounds is Grant Shapps, whose name is impossible to say without sarcastic air quotes. Former party co-chairman “Grant Shapps” has today been touring the broadcast studios more in sorrow than in anger, explaining he has a list of 30 names. The obvious reaction to hearing Grant Shapps say “I have 30 names” is: what’s new, mate? That’s until you discover that what he means is names of MPs who think May must go. Grant Shapps! Have I woken up in a counterfactual timeline where people didn’t actually discover that Grant Shapps held lucrative jobs under assumed names while an MP? In any self-respecting party he now would be regarded as more toxic than a yoghurt left behind on Bikini Atoll. Instead, he is the star of The Shapps Ultimatum. By chance, I kept spotting him round the Conservative conference in Manchester this week, and thought each time that his spirit animal is something rodentine. He has a touch of the Linda Tripps to him.
Yet again while the Brexit clock is ticking, the Tories seem to think the best way to make decisions is to wonder “what kind of people do we want to be?” as opposed to facing up to the kind of people they are. According to Shapps on Friday morning, this would be a good time for a leadership contest because Brexit negotiations are in a “stable pattern” – the most ludicrous Tory use of the word “stable” since the last time.
If the Tories are wondering what the vast majority of the public are now thinking, let me make it crystal clear, with apologies for ascending to the rarefied terms of Burkean philosophy and Bismarckian diplomatic theory: we don’t have time for any more of your shit. Nobody wants you to “fix” stuff, nobody wants you to try out a 4-1-3-1-1 formation, nobody thinks we’re going to win the effing World Cup here. What people would like – if they could get a word in edgeways over the endless episode of political Crossroads – is for the government to get. on. with. it. Instead, they appear too out of control to even take back control of the control they took back lastsummer. The Conservative clown car is now overheating on the hard shoulder, sporting a bumper sticker that reads: “My other leader is Winston Churchill.”
The idea that Boris may still be the answer is certainly eyecatching. But after last summer’s Tory shitshow, you may find yourself a little unconvinced by a plan best characterised as Hamlet II. Look, I think we all knew Fortinbras was going to be a bit of a washout – impossible gig, in the circs – but the idea that we should cryogenically reanimate the not-very-great Dane feels distinctly meth-assisted.
The obvious reaction to hearing Grant Shapps say 'I have 30 names' is: what’s new, mate?
It is, however, just what happened with Redknapp. ’Arry was always the manager-over-the-water, notionally winning us football matches that Hodgson bungled. This was all very questionable. We could get into a whole speculative technical analysis as to why, but which of us has the time or the inclination? He opened a Monaco bank account in the name of his dog. End.
Needless to say, it’s never the end for the restless souls in whose gifts a manager or prime minister’s future lies. Like the FA, the Tories have offed so many that they can come across as the metaphorical serial killers of public life. Serial killers are usually motivated by one of a combination of four tendencies: personal thrill or comfort; the belief they are making a sacrifice in the service of some higher good; the belief that they’re cleaning house; the pursuit of power. I mean … take your pick. Even George Osborne seems to realise at some level what they’re about, reportedly claiming he wasn’t going to rest until “Theresa May is chopped up in bags in my freezer”. At present, some Tories think that dispatching May will make them feel alive. They will feel something – anything – in that place where their policies and coherence should be.
Pretty sure it isn’t going to be that simple. Ditto the classic “England football crisis” responses that are being suggested now. I see a lot of people saying the new Tory boss should come in, scrap all the big names and give the kids a chance. Maybe. But realistically, the Conservative party cannot play as a team on Europe, and have consequently become as psychologically dysfunctional as more than one generation of England players were every time they pulled on the shirt.
We must wish the Tories all the absolute best with their latest displacement activity, at the same time as concluding that some Sam Allardyce equivalent is doubtless in the post. I’m sure there’ll be a new slogan – there always is. But those of us who are forced to watch will stick with the classic: do I not like that.
• Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist