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09th Jul 2018

While England turns to Gareth Southgate, Brexit is stuck in the Do I Not Like That era

Dion Fanning

As England prepare for a World Cup semi-final on Wednesday, the weekend saw the latest laments that Gareth Southgate is now the only leader the country can rely on.

Southgate, it was said, was redefining what Englishness means, an urgent enough task given the havoc wreaked by English nationalism in recent times, particularly in England.

That these latest observations about Southgate came during a triumph for Theresa May’s premiership made them even more wounding. May was enjoying a prime ministerial highpoint, the glorious 48 hours between Friday evening when she was said to have seen off the Brexiteers at the Chequers summit and achieved a “complete victory” – an analysis based on the fact that none of the rebels was spotted trying to find a minicab in the English countryside like some straggler from an illegal rave wandering down a country lane trying to figure out where they were and how would they get back to London – and the Sunday night comedown when David Davis, consumed by The Fear, decided enough was enough, this was one Monday morning he wouldn’t be dozing through a sales meeting while trying to figure out where that 200 quid he withdrew from an ATM at 4am went.

May could be forgiven for feeling nostalgic for this triumph, recalling the glories of, well, Saturday as she reflected on Monday morning that it has all gone wrong again.

No wonder Southgate is appealing to so many when Brexiteers are referring to Jacob Rees-Mogg as “our Churchill” while, according to the Sunday Times, Boris Johnson – who certainly sees himself as his own Churchill – declared “May’s plans ‘a big turd’ and said that anyone deciding them would be ‘polishing a turd’ — before backing down and supporting them.”

May seemed aware of that appeal and even in here moment of triumph she tried to channel Southgate or at least just sound like any football manager.

“I think we should take a leaf out of Gareth Southgate’s book and say let’s just take it one game at a time,” she told Tim Shipman in the Sunday Times, although maybe she was referring to one ministerial resignation at a time.

May, unfortunately, bears little resemblance to the Southgate who has penetrated the English consciousness, evoking instead memories of nearly every other England manager between 1980 and 2016, but in particular that sad yet comic time when those who believed in the innate superiority of England lashed out whenever they had a painful encounter with reality.

In An Impossible Job, Graham Taylor tries to wrestle with these conflicts, telling a press conference at one point that “your selections never carry that risk and never carry that responsibility”, a line which May could relate to as she considers the ongoing obsessive malignancy of the Brexiteers who can’t take yes for an answer.

They are to May what the press was to Taylor and it is easy to imagine her looking over at David Davis and Johnson and trying to deliver a pep talk as Taylor did ahead of the game against Holland when it finally unravelled.

“Come on, come on, rise yourselves, look for your win. Oh Rob, I can’t continue…Rob, I can’t have…listen Rob, I cannot have faces like yours round about me.”

The faces May has round about her might change rapidly this week, although it may be that the prime minister is the face that soon enough nobody can have round about them.

During the days when he was hounded, Bobby Robson was said to always wear the look of a man who feared he might have left the gas on. May cannot emerge from any scene without looking like she is equally troubled, the obsessive anxiety that something is wrong which, in her case, is different from the obsessive mindset only in the sense that there is something wrong, namely pretty much everything.

This anxiety is fuelled by the fantasies of the Brexiteers, their idea that there is a happy land where all their dreams can be made reality and the only thing preventing this happening is every exposure to the real world.

They live in a place without results, resembling one of those Arsenal fans who used to hold up an A4 piece of paper with transfer targets written on it and then find themselves getting increasingly angry when nobody would follow through on this perfectly reasonable list of perfectly attainable targets.

Those in need of reassurance may not have been calmed on Monday morning when it was suggested that May would now do Davis’s job herself, which, in football terms had echoes of when Niall Quinn, Sunderland chairman, had no option but to appoint Niall Quinn Sunderland manager, before taking the wise course after one win in six matches to ask himself to step to one side and let someone else do it.

Wisely, May decided not to appoint herself at this difficult stage, taking the prudent decision to implode one job at a time.

But even that laser-like concentration might not save her, not while contenders like Rees-Mogg wait in the wings, a contender who offers a comforting if deluded alternative for the fantasists who believe he can somehow take them back to the 19th century where he resides.

And so, having no alternative, they keep going, imagining themselves as the masters of their domain, when they are in fact sitting helplessly on the sideline, wondering why can they not knock it. They are hoping for a break, but condemned to the dismal reality that, when it comes to Brexit, they have no choice but to keep on polishing one turd at a time.