As the Sixties entered its twilight period, Britain was more than ready for change. Beleaguered by inflation, stagnant industrial output and worsening trade-union relations, the Labour Party was on course for a major defeat. By the start of 1970, The Times had produced a poll that showed the Conservative Party was in line for a “landslide of almost 1945 proportions” and a majority of 180 seats. In response, Chancellor Roy Jenkins opted against a giveaway budget, stating that it would be “a vulgar piece of economic management”. But when news that the balance of trade was positive, the Cabinet urged him to cut fast and loose with an election.

Just as Rishi Sunak has now pinned his electoral hopes on changing inflation figures, Prime Minister Harold Wilson saw a small window of opportunity to go to the polls. There was just one problem: as Wilson himself recognised, “the conflict with the World Cup had to be considered”. If England were defeated just before polling day, the Government would surely suffer. But when the “mystical symbiosis”, as Roy Jenkins described it, of Labour and the England team winning in harmony was put before them, they had little option but to take it.

Wilson understood the fortunes of the England football team mattered more to people than the fortunes of his government. He had tried to use it to his advantage in 1966, when he ensured he was the keynote speaker at the launch of the tournament and made a rapid dash back from Canada on the day of the final to make sure he could bask in the glory of victory. Later, he joined the team at the Royal Garden Hotel to celebrate.

Some in the government believed victory in 1966 could turn the British economy around. Richard Crossman hoped it would “be a decisive factor in strengthening sterling” with the banks inspired by England’s “gallant fight”. But as the government continued to lose standing in the country and the polls, it proved to be a false dawn.

Rishi Sunak is the only other Prime Minister in half a century to pitch his hopes against the backdrop of an England campaign. Just like Wilson in 1970, he has been waiting for the first glimpse of economic good news to call it. And just like the England team in 1970, our boys head to Germany this summer as the favourites to win.

Had Sunak’s team looked at the Wilson campaign, however, they would have seen how quickly events on the football pitch can shape the feel of a campaign. And the omens do not look good.

“The omens do not look good.”

Back in 1970, things started badly for the government when the arrest of England captain, Bobby Moore, in Colombia — for allegedly stealing a bracelet from a jewellery shop — derailed the launch of their manifesto. Politics was knocked off the front page for days, while Wilson attempted to intervene to release him. When Moore was eventually let off without charge, Wilson was quick to claim credit. He even accused the Conservative leader, Edward Heath, of wanting England to lose. “Is there no triviality to which this man won’t descend?” replied Heath.

On the ground, it was clear that World Cup fever had gripped the nation more than the election, as MPs wondered why people were not turning up for their meetings. Roy Jenkins even moved one rally to accommodate England’s fixtures but was furious when only a “hundred or so people” turned up. The buzz around the tournament even reached the orbit of Tony Benn. After a hard day’s campaigning, he reflected in his diary that the mood in the country was changing after England lost to Brazil and that the “political effect, can’t be altogether ignored”.

The slow-paced nature of the group stages allowed the public to dip their toe into some of the election arguments — many of which will again play out this summer. On housing, Wilson “bitterly regretted” that his government had failed to meet demand. Meanwhile, rising immigration was put on the agenda by Enoch Powell who issued his own manifesto to “halt immigration now”. Tensions boiled over at one meeting where Powell was met with 300 protestors; it was reported that “punches were exchanged” between stewards and demonstrators.

Wilson advised his Labour ministers not to engage with Powell, who had huge appeal to working-class voters in the Midlands. Tony Benn took the bait but, by and large, Labour focused on the economy. “The biggest challenge facing any industrial nation today is how to expand the economy without pushing up its costs,” read its manifesto. “The answer lies in increasing our productivity.”

At first, Wilson’s safety-first approach appeared to be working. Crossman noted in his diary that the country was ready and willing to accept another six years of Labour that would allow them to firmly establish themselves as a natural party of government. England’s football team also appeared to be dominant. On the day they were due to face West Germany in the Quarter Finals, the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, made a speech in Devon where he all but conceded defeat: “It is now clear that nationally the Labour Party is romping home.”

And as Harold Wilson settled down along with 20 million others to watch England race into a 2-0 lead against West Germany, everything appeared to be going to plan. But in a moment that would enter political and football folklore, Sir Alf Ramsey took off Bobby Charlton to preserve his energy whereupon England slumped to a crushing 3-2 defeat. In an instant, England were no longer world champions; the nation’s pride had been shattered.

On the campaign trail, MPs reported back that few seemed interested in politics; people only wanted to talk about England’s poor performance. The heatwave ended and the reality of the team’s defeat sank in. Undermining his campaign, new trade figures showed that the economy was not doing as well as Wilson had thought. Just 48 hours before the polling stations opened, the Board of Trade announced that export-import figures were £31 million in the red. The shadow chancellor, Iain Macleod, argued that it showed exactly why Wilson had wanted to cut and run. “The honeymoon after devaluation is over,” he declared.

But Heath confounded the pollsters to pull off a stunning upset. In the aftermath, people wondered whether England’s defeat had led to a change in morale that altered the outcome of the vote. And while it is impossible to pinpoint the exact causes of late shifts in voter behaviour, David Butler and Michael Pinto-Duschinsky concluded in the British General Election of 1970 study that England’s defeat “may have contributed to a switch in mood”.

Since 1970, politicians have increasingly sought to use football to create their own narratives about patriotism and national renewal. In Euro 96, as the tournament opened in England, John Major declared that the “economic prospects are bright” and that “we have a lot to be positive about in this country”. Tony Blair tried to link the success of the England team to his aim of developing a winning mentality within Labour. “Second place is not the goal,” he wrote. “The high of watching success is incomparable. In sport as in politics, a well-fought campaign for second place means nothing.”

By Euro 2020, however, supporting England had become a contested political issue. Conservative figures such as Lee Anderson boycotted the team after players took the knee in support of Black Lives Matter protests. Recent Labour convert Natalie Elphicke, suggested Marcus Rashford should have spent more time “perfecting his game” rather than “playing politics” over his free school meals campaign. By contrast, leading Labour figures such as Keir Starmer and Sadiq Khan tried to claim Gareth Southgate’s “progressive patriotism” as their own.

When England kick off their Euros campaign next month, both Starmer and Sunak will look to tap into any feel-good factor that emerges in the wider country. Yet in truth, the timing of the “Euro’s election” is a bizarre one. By holding the election on 4 July, England will have only played their three group games and one Round-of-16 match by the time the voters head to the polling stations. The really big games will come afterwards, leaving the next Prime Minister with a potential golden run of a Quarter, Semi, and a Final in a frantic two-week period. Back when Euro 96 fever gripped the nation, England beat Scotland, the Netherlands and Spain in a week. One journalist observed that in the days after, you could “plunge your thermometer anywhere in England’s psyche today, and it emerges glowing red with patriotic fever”.

If history were to repeat itself, Sunak’s final act could be to gift Starmer the opportunity to spend his first few days as Prime Minister overseeing scenes of national celebration not seen since 1966. Starmer would have a free shot at pinning his arguments about a decade of national renewal to the success of a young and vibrant England side. In other words, Sunak would have scored an own goal.

And just as Wilson could always say that only under Labour have England won the World Cup, Starmer could say the same about the Euros. Faced with such a scenario, downtrodden Conservatives could be forgiven for feeling left with only one choice: hoping that England fail miserably and are out of the competition before they are out of office.

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