Vladimir Putin is not going to be brought to heel with vague threats we might not send Prince Edward to football’s global jamboree
Cancel the World Cup! Tear down the stadia! Burn the Panini albums! Rescind Clive Tyldesley’s flight to Moscow (actually, definitely do this one).
For foreign secretary Boris Johnson has told the Commons “it would be very difficult to imagine” that UK representation at this summer’s World Cup could go ahead in the “normal way” in the event of any evidence of Russian involvement in the collapse of former spy Sergei Skripal.
Three-quarters of potential UK representation had already ruled out their attendance, of course – the Scottish, with curious prescience, well before time. But that still left the potential of a boycott of the event by the England team, denying billions around the globe the chance to watch Chris Smalling and Jordan Henderson pass the ball among themselves without a great deal of purpose for three games before succumbing to penalties.
Or at least that’s how it appeared, until Johnson’s “aides” – those who trail him around clearing up the mess, like the keeper to the elephant in the Blue Peter studio – clarified he was referring to “officials” and not the England team.
‘He was trying to show the range of hard and soft power available to show our international displeasure,’ the source said, suggesting a rather greater deal of thought behind the announcement than had initially been applied.
Johnson’s shadow Emily Thornberry, whose job description these days appears to be to bring the sass, tweeted: “It really would save a lot of time and hassle if Boris preceded every Commons appearance, media interview and memo by saying: ‘Please take none of this seriously until my aides have confirmed if I meant to say it’.”
It really would save a lot of time and hassle if Boris preceded every Commons appearance, media interview and memo by saying: ‘Please take none of this seriously until my aides have confirmed if I meant to say it.’ #WorldCup
— Emily Thornberry (@EmilyThornberry) March 6, 2018
But, then, taking the clarified threat… is that it? Is that how Johnson plans to show Vladimir Putin the UK’s displeasure at potential foreign involvement in an attempt to take a life on its soil? Blocking the FA’s board members, various junior ministers, minor members of the civil list and sponsors on a jolly from being in Volgograd for England’s opener against Tunisia?
It is unlikely anybody will find the absence of the chairman of the Dorset county FA a crushing blow. To paraphrase Zlatan Ibrahimovic, nobody has ever said “a World Cup without Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Sport and Civil Society Tracey Crouch is nothing to watch”.
Putin would probably survive if England made the quarters and a scheduled appearance by, say, Prince Edward didn’t go ahead. And as for sponsors… well, Johnson will not want reminding that the England team’s lead sponsor, Vauxhall, is departing its role after the World Cup – not on the day its head said a lack of clarity over Brexit threatens the future of its Ellesmere Port operation.
Johnson’s previous attempt at footballing diplomacy (above)
It was perhaps Commons speaker John Bercow who got it right when he said Johnson “used the conditional tense and I think it would be correct to say that he was ruminating on the possibilities in the event of no improvement in the situation”.
Translation: he was making it up as he went along. Which is an interesting if not surprising attitude to making threats to a nuclear power.
The only other explanation would be that, in saying the World Cup would not go ahead in the “normal way”, Johnson meant England would win it. But even he’s not that daft.