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Business & Economy

Opinion: Got. Got. Need…

It wasn’t just collectors of football World Cup album stickers that ended last year poring over the gaps in teams’ line-ups – the two principal political parties were doing the same thing after a number of Conservative and Labour ministers announced their intention to step down at the next general election. Here, Steven Hugill looks at the important decisions each party needs to make when it comes to swapping personnel ahead of the big ballot.


Harry Kane? Need.

Ao Tanaka? Got.

Walker Zimmerman? Got. Three times.

Filip Duricic? Got that too. I swear they print certain versions more than others.

Daniel-Kofi Kyereh? I’m not even sure that one exists…

If, like my partner and I, you spent the last days and weeks of 2022 furiously endeavouring to fill a World Cup football sticker album for your children, then the refrains above will sound all too familiar.

To be fair, the process is much easier than it once was, the pristine riches of social media swap shops far better than the days of playground dealings, where traders offered duplicated – and (on occasion) questionably stained – stickers that curled from corner to corner under the force of an ageing elastic band.

Even with the internet’s wide-ranging support, however, it nevertheless remains a long old slog filling an album with nearly 700 stickers, and one evening, after perhaps rejoicing a little too much at receiving Uruguay’s Rodrigo Bentancur and Netherlands forward Cody Gakpo through the post, my mind began to wander.

The television was on in the background, a reporter revealing that after munching on animal genitalia in an Australian rainforest – all in the name of promoting dyslexia awareness, rather than a fat cheque, apparently – ex-health secretary Matt Hancock was so chewed up by politics that he’d decided to stand down at the next general election.

And listening to his withdrawal, while flicking through my album pages – vacant, square spaces where players should be staring back – got me thinking.

Although apparently a big Southampton Football Club fan, I very much doubt Rishi Sunak keeps a Panini-style scrapbook of his respective ministers, complete with height, weight and favoured playing position…

Nonetheless, he’s got an increasing number of swaps to make come the next ballot, with Hancock joining a swathe of MPs in laying down their blue rosette.

The exodus includes short-lived Chancellor Sajid Javid, Crispin Blunt and Bishop Auckland’s Dehenna Davison, who was only appointed to a role on the Government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda in September last year.

Her departure – just one term into a Westminster career that began with her emphatically wresting control of the County Durham constituency from Labour – is a particular blow for the Conservatives’ future ‘red wall’ hopes.

Yet in a way, the departures may not be such a bad thing.

Given a fair chunk of the general public’s faith in the Government is now paper thin at best following a tumultuous 2022, revising the team sheet and tactics board is exactly what the Conservatives need.

And as a Saints follower, the Prime Minister knows all about how rebuilding a team from the depths of despair can deliver success.

After making a habit of surviving on a shoestring in the Premier League during the 1990s and early 2000s, his club was relegated in 2005, its fate sealed during a very familiar sounding campaign of three managers and a major turnover in playing personnel.

Amid the gloom, officials turned to the next generation, cherry-picking academy talent like Gareth Bale to kick off a (successful) renaissance.

And its journey across the B-roads of the footballing map provides an interesting parallel for the new Prime Minister and his future plans.

That the Saints survived so long against the new money of the elite the first time around was, in no small part, due to the mercurial talent of midfielder (and Sunak’s boyhood favourite player) Matt Le Tissier, who regularly pepped up stuttering performances with moments of brilliance.

But when Le Tissier retired, and the momentum he created dwindled, the Saints lost their place at the top table.

Similarly, with Boris Johnson’s showmanship having ended with one trick too many, and Liz Truss imploding spectacularly, the latest Prime Minister must, as his south coast side did, revive both itself and its support base, by melding the old with the new.

Even the most ardent Conservative supporter will admit the party is primed for – at best – a bruising general election, so a clearing of the decks, allied to right decisions on future candidates, might just help the party, if it does lose power, avoid Westminster oblivion.

Obscurity, of course, is something Labour is more than familiar with, thanks to the shambles of the Jeremy Corbyn era.

And while various surveys predict a thumping Commons success for the red rose, the party has its own swaps to negotiate.

It too will haemorrhage decades of experience when the next ballot arrives, with mother of the house Harriet Harman, Dame Margaret Hodge and Stockton North’s Alex Cunningham, among others, calling it a day.

And while Sir Kier Starmer has made a good deal of progress since taking office, re-uniting sections of the party and re-engaging with areas of society, the impact of Corbyn’s rudderless regime still feels like an anchor on progress.

Its latest picture book – penned by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown and presented by Labour akin to the gold-framed shiny stickers Panini reserves for glorious ‘moment-in-time’ events – however, does represent some forward thrust.

For so long happy to sit back and let the Tories’ fire burn (and arguably, why wouldn’t you?), the 40-point plan finally provides a chunk of meat on the bones.

At its core is devolution, the headline being the removal of the House of Lords for an elected “assembly of the nations and regions”.

It’s a wide-ranging paper, and punchy too, promising to empower the “neglected, ignored and invisible (who are) all too often left to feel second-class citizens”.

And yet it still presents more questions than answers.

That Labour remains a no-go area for many voters – including a good number in its traditional ‘red wall’ heartland – despite the Conservatives’ incredible self-destruction, means it too has a job on its hands in ensuring its next election album is filled with the right individuals.

The last vote showed what happens when you create a team that looks more like the crude creations of Panini Cheapskates than the genuine article.

And if Labour is serious about regaining power, it can’t make the same mistake again.