Voices: Fantasy politics: Could Gary Lineker be Britain’s Volodymyr Zelensky?

Could a likeable though lightweight TV personality actually run a country?


Volodymyr Zelensky had no experience of serious politics when he launched his bid for power in Ukraine. It hasn’t stopped the former actor and comedian from becoming a respected world leader.

But surely a former sports star could not do likewise?

Wrong again. The second most prominent politician in Ukraine is Vitali Klitschko, ex-boxing champion and mayor of Kyiv.

So could Gary Lineker do the same in Britain?

At first sight, of course not. But let’s swap fantasy football for fantasy politics. It’s pretty obvious which, if any, party he would lead.

Many pundits believe that if Labour fails to beat the Conservatives at the next election it will be down to their lacklustre leader Sir Keir Starmer. Even now many voters don’t even recognise him. We like what he stands for, they say, but he looks and sounds so boring we aren’t sure we can be bothered to vote for him.

Even those who can’t tell a football from a ping pong ball know what charismatic Gary Lineker looks like. And after this week’s events, no one can say he is boring.

Charisma-deficient Starmer would give his right arm to have had one-hundredth of the publicity Lineker has had for his attack on the government over illegal migrants. Moreover, Lineker clearly wants to have a political profile. His tweet comparing Tory policies on migrants to 1930s Germany is no one-off intervention.

It is the latest and most provocative in a long line of comments, mostly left-wing in nature. In addition to speaking out on refugees and asylum he has joined debates about gay rights, Brexit, the environment and Palestine. Nor does he duck a fight: he challenged foreign secretary James Cleverly head-on over human rights.

His list of public pronouncements does not amount to a manifesto. But there is little more detail in either of the main parties’ current vacuous “five-point plans”.

There are pitfalls: “Prime Minister Lineker” would have to come up with a solution to the small boats crisis – crowd pleasing tweets won’t deter them.

But there are advantages too: he wouldn’t have to look far for a chief of staff. Keir Starmer is the ideal backroom fixer to do the hard graft while Lineker takes the limelight as Labour’s “front of house”. Conveniently, this would also enable Labour to reverse Starmer’s ill-judged appointment of Whitehall mandarin Sue Gray as chief of staff.

Joking aside, it is only fair to point out there are several formidable practical hurdles facing the notion of “Prime Minister Lineker”.

Principally, it is easier for a celebrity politician to become a president than a prime minister – and Britain has the latter. Presidents are directly elected and can mobilise popular appeal: a prime minister must go through all the trouble of becoming an MP and party leader first.

Plenty of sports stars have gone on to have prominent political careers, such as former PM of Pakistan, cricket star Imran Khan and ex-international footballer George Weah, currently president of Liberia. Even ex-Olympic champion and MP Lord Sebastian Coe was tipped at one point as a future Conservative leader.

And why shouldn’t Lineker stand for Parliament? At 62, he has had hugely successful careers in sport, broadcasting and business. He clearly likes a challenge, is a consummate communicator and has powerful allies ready to man the barricades with him.

He appears to be winning a titanic trial of strength against the combined might of the government and BBC management. And several senior figures take the view that the current furore shows Lineker has “outgrown the BBC”.

Continuing the political parlour game, picture the reaction if a parliamentary by-election occurred now and Lineker threw his hat in the ring. It’s hard to know who would be most worried: Sunak or Starmer.