Euro Finals Glory Could Give Starmer Feel-Good Narrative

(Bloomberg) -- The England men’s football team stands one game away from winning its first major tournament in almost six decades — and the opportunity couldn’t come at a better time for Britain’s new prime minister, Keir Starmer.

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The lifelong football fan will be in Berlin on Sunday when England take on Spain in the UEFA Euro 2024 final. Little over a week since Labour swept to power on a “change” platform after what Starmer called Britain’s 14 years of decline under the outgoing Conservatives, England’s players could deliver his administration the type of shot in the arm that would be remembered for generations.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if his approval ratings go up,” said Anand Menon, director of the UK in a Changing Europe think tank. Victory could allow Starmer to build up an early feel-good narrative that will help in what is expected to be a brief honeymoon period given the scale of problems Starmer has inherited.

“It would feel more like a brave new dawn — even though none of it’s got anything to do with him,” Menon said.

To be sure, England are not favored to win, having relied on last-gasp goals and a penalty shootout en route to the final. Spain, by contrast, are the pundits’ clear choice having won every game they’ve played so far.

Yet the pain of repeated football failures has almost become a part of the English identity and that’s why there is so much focus on Sunday. Fans have watched England booted out of major tournaments — twice in penalty shootouts to old rivals Germany — only for hope to reach fever pitch the next time.

It’s a feeling captured in the 1996 pop single “Three Lions.” Released ahead of the Euro championships held in England that year, it contains a line harking backing to England’s last big win in the 1966 World Cup: “Thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming.”

The chorus of “It’s Coming Home” — the belief that England will finally win a trophy — followed Starmer all the way to the White House this week. Having taken time out of his NATO meetings in Washington to watch parts of England’s semi-final win over the Netherlands, he was sitting alongside US President Joe Biden when a reporter asked if football is “coming home.”

“It looks like it,” Starmer replied, without missing a beat.

Of all of Britain’s recent leaders, Starmer looks best-placed to authentically capitalize on any England victory because of his genuine love of football. He’s a regular at Arsenal FC games in the Premier League, and has said he’s determined to continue his five-a-side games with his friends.

Asked on Sky News about England’s chances, Starmer immediately referenced the last Euro final in London in 2021, which he attended and watched England lose to Italy — on penalties. “I don’t want to go through that again,” he said.

But Starmer also makes more serious points about football. In the election campaign, he talked about taking his daughter to the England women’s team — the Lionesses — in the 2022 Euros semi-final and the impact it had on her. “She stayed at the end watching the women celebrate for a long, long time. It was a very, very special moment of inspiration.”

England went on to win that tournament — a victory that has put even more scrutiny on the men’s team to end its prolonged drought.

Starmer has even mooted the prospect of a national holiday if England wins on Sunday, a move that, while popular, may crimp Britain’s economic growth. Starmer previously expressed support for the idea when England’s women’s football team were in the World Cup final last year. They lost against Spain.

Starmer may only get a temporary boost from any victory, Menon said, citing issues such as difficult tax-and-spending choices on the horizon that might puncture Labour’s popularity.

“It won’t matter in five years’ time when we’re voting again,” he said. “Other stuff will happen in the future that will affect our perceptions more.”

Yet there are politics in play. Starmer’s Labour Party has typically been more associated than the Conservatives with football, and following its landslide election win, research shows all but eight of the 92 league clubs in England are now in Labour-held constituencies.

Politicians often look for political gain out of national sporting success. France’s president Emmanuel Macron was famously pictured celebrating exuberantly when France won the FIFA World Cup in 2018 and sought to closely associate himself with that success. India’s T20 Cricket World Cup victory last month was welcomed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the cricket-mad nation.

But if England do go on to win on Sunday, there’s a strong sense in which Starmer can count himself lucky. As the UK waited for former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to call an election, most Westminster observers thought he’d go to the polls in autumn. In that scenario, an England victory could have added to what many in his Conservative Party thought might be a more optimistic outlook.

Instead the boost might — just might — fall to Starmer.

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