Johnson’s legacy: Boris Johnson and the regulation of football

A recent fan-led review of football governance has come up with wide-ranging and widely-supported recommendations. In the fourth installment of our series, Dan Hough, Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex, discusses the Johnson administration’s part in getting the ball rolling, assessing that the hard bit – implementing reforms – clearly starts now.

When talking about Boris Johnson’s legacy it’s unlikely that many people would start with a discussion of football. The man himself claimed to be a football fan but was hardly renowned as a genuine supporter of the ‘beautiful game’; after all, it was Johnson who once claimed he “supported all London clubs” and when asked in 2013 if he’d ever like to be Prime Minister, used a rugby analogy, commenting that “if the ball came out of the back of the scrum he’d have a crack at it”. Drinking a pinot grigio at Twickenham would subsequently seem much more Johnson’s natural terrain than standing on the old Shed End at Chelsea or the North Bank at Highbury.

A fan-led review and an independent regulator

Be that as it may, Johnson’s government inevitably found itself engaging with discussions of football. In the UK, it’s hard for it to be otherwise. The 2019 Conservative Party manifesto promised a fan-led review of football governance and indeed that review, ultimately led by Conservative MP Tracey Crouch, became a cornerstone of the government’s thinking in this area. It aimed to “to support and explore our analysis of the issues in the game, and to provide views on what might be done about them” and promised to make a significant contribution to righting some of football’s wrongs.

The recommendations were published in November 2021 (see here for a good summary) and the UK government was rhetorically supportive of them. Back in March 2022 Johnson was unequivocal in his support for one of the most eye-catching of those recommendations; the creation of an independent regulator for English football over and above the Football Association (FA). The regulator would make a significant contribution towards helping put the game’s finances on more of an even keel and to oversee who owned clubs and indeed the corporate governance structures that they then presided over.

Johnson, speaking in Parliament on 23 March 2022, again stressed “that we should indeed have an independent regulator for football” and he once more confirmed that in comments made at the most recent English professional club to go bankrupt, Bury FC, on 25 April.

In the Queen’s Speech on 10 May 2022, his government reiterated the importance of protecting clubs’ long-term financial sustainability as well as the broader interests of both clubs and fans. The expectation was that the regulator would do this and indeed that he/she would be in place by the end of the calendar year.

Liz Truss, the saviour of English football?

There’s therefore plenty of evidence of Boris Johnson and his government making positive noises about reforming football governance. Three years on from the 2019 election triumph, however, the noises have – in the cold light of day – still not built up to very much.

The big question is now whether Liz Truss is up to the job of, as the respected chief executive of Fair Game, Niall Couper, put it, “sav[ing] our national game”. Being positive, it’s mooted that a White Paper will be published in October although there is already talk of bandwidth concerns and the government’s in-tray being simply too large to be able to deal with this now. Furthermore, there are also rumours that plans for a Premier League transfer levy – something that the fan-led review explicitly recommended – will be quietly ditched. If that goes, one can’t help but wonder what else might go with it.

Talk is one thing, but action?

Given that, it’s not unreasonable to ask whether Johnson’s legacy will be as familiar in this area as it is in many others; plenty of bravado and belligerence that inevitably, sooner or later, turns into little more than bluster and bluff.

The fact that he couldn’t complete the reforms he promised means that the buck now passes to his successor. Truss has more football-supporting credentials than Johnson (for example, since becoming an MP in the area she’s grown to be a Norwich City fan and has indeed been seen at games) but there are already indications that neither she nor her advisors have any real interest in changing the way that the game is run. Bringing in governance reforms that powerful players within the game may well oppose is highly unlikely to be at the top of her to-do list.

Truss’s next steps will become apparent in due course, but in terms of Johnson and his legacy the cynic might say that this is the way that his administration generally rolled. That might be convenient (and in this case essentially untestable), but it would also be a little unfair. The fan-review did come up with widely respected recommendations and Johnson was out on his ear before they could realistically be implemented.

However, setting up a commission and offering it rhetorical support was always going to be the easy bit and Johnson will in all likelihood have known that. The more pressing question is how you deal with the politics of implementing the recommendations. Whether Liz Truss’s regime has the resilience to face down the vested interests and make at least a small contribution to bringing some financial sanity to the way football works remains the big challenge.

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