Photo: Jack Kay/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Artillery Row

L’esprit de Boeuf

What sort of political XI will Botham join at Westminster?

Emperor Boris has just had his Incitatus moment. Caligula planned to make his favourite horse a consul; the prime minister wants to make Sir Ian Botham a peer. It is debatable which would be less suited to legislating.

Lord Beefy is England’s greatest all-round cricketer (though Ben Stokes is nudging him off that pedestal) and has done superb fundraising for children’s charities, for which he was rightly knighted in 2007, but no one expects him to be more than lobby fodder. The famously safe pair of hands that snaffled 120 catches in Tests will not be trusted with a ministerial brief; nor will their Lordships be treated often to the simple wisdom of a man who said during the Brexit referendum that “England is an island”, delighting the Scots and Welsh.

What Botham’s elevation hints at is the prime minister’s desire at the end of what has become a testing first year in office to find that maverick quality that used to be his trademark. The peerage is not just a reward for the cricketer’s enthusiasm for Brexit – though it is an amusing piece of trolling that Nigel Farage remains without ermine – but because his character matches the PM’s. A sense that no situation is impossible if you have enough optimism and self-belief. L’esprit de boeuf, as Michel Barnier might call it. Others may use a word beginning with bull.

“I think we’ve had quite a lot of [Geoff] Boycott on the wicket,” Johnson said when he entered Downing Street, in a dig at the risk-averse approach of his predecessor and her childhood idol. “It is time for Botham to come in.” BoJo and Beefy are kindred spirits, right down to their inability to keep their trousers on, though mercifully we have not yet had a cock selfie appear on the Downing Street Twitter feed as mysteriously happened to Botham a few years back.

They both believe in working miracles by hit-and-hope rather than digging in, at their happiest when, as Graham Dilley urged Botham during their match-turning stand at Headingley in 1981, they can “give it some humpty”. How must Johnson have wished that he could rout Covid, as Botham did Australia at Edgbaston in the Test after Headingley, simply by doing what Mike Brearley, Botham’s captain, described as “bringing on the Gorilla from the City End”.

Lord Gorilla will be the ninth Test cricketer to sit in the House of Lords, with the best bowling average and the fourth best in batting. Four were prewar hereditary peers: Lords Hawke, Harris, Tennyson and the Earl of Darnley. Then came Learie Constantine, the former West Indies all-rounder who was made a peer in 1969 for his work in race relations. He used to have three trays on his desk marked “In”, “Out” and “LBW”, which stood for “Let the buggers wait”.

After him came David Sheppard, who received a life peerage when he retired as Bishop of Liverpool; Colin Cowdrey, nominated by John Major in his outgoing honours list; and Rachael Heyhoe-Flint, the former England women’s captain. Cowdrey barely troubled the Hansard scorers, making nine speeches in three years in the Lords. One suspects that Botham, once he has bowled his opening maiden, will be heard from even less frequently.

The ties that bind cricket and politics are much stronger than with any other sport. The word “cricket” appears tens of thousands of times in Hansard, Westminster’s Wisden, going back to a debate on the observance of the Sabbath in 1834 when John Poulter, Whig MP for Shaftesbury, defended the right of people to play cricket after they had been to church since, he argued, it kept them out of the pub. Thirty years later William Gladstone suggested as chancellor that it should be legal for alcohol to be sold after sunset since thirsty cricketers have earned the right to a beer at stumps. And the fact that a select committee has 11 members today may be traced back to Benjamin Disraeli in 1857 saying that 11 was his preferred size of committee because it worked so well in cricket.

Cricketing terms abound in Parliament, such as “sticky wicket” or “playing a straight bat”. Most famously, Geoffrey Howe in 1990 compared Margaret Thatcher’s behaviour towards colleagues as being “like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.

Alec Douglas-Home was the best cricketer to become prime minister. He played in the same Eton XI as Gubby Allen, the future England captain, making 66 and taking four for 37 against Harrow in 1922, and had ten first-class matches. Cricket was a lifelong love. He was fond of saying that his wife had an uncle who could never walk down an abbey nave without wondering whether it would take spin.

Major was extremely passionate about the game, using it in 1993 to sum up his vision for the country. “Fifty years on from now, Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds,” Major began. Ken Clarke used to pass him notes during cabinet meetings. A suspicious Michael Heseltine once swiped one, opened it and read the latest score from Trent Bridge. When Major left office in 1997 he went, via the Queen, to go and see Alec Stewart make 86 for Surrey in a cup game and he chose the Oval as his luxury on Desert Island Discs.

Clement Attlee was almost as enthusiastic. In the late 1940s, he was convinced of the merit of installing a Press Association news ticker when told it would allow him to get the county scores. One day, after his press secretary had given his daily briefing, Attlee said in surprise: “Why is there an account of this morning’s cabinet on my cricket machine?”

Theresa May continued the cricket-loving theme and arranged a knighthood for Boycott in her resignation honours. Her fondness for the old blocker is one of the few things she had in common with Jacob Rees-Mogg, who prefers him despite Botham being a fellow man of Somerset and can run through the Boycott averages from 1979 as if quoting scripture. He once told me that George Parker of the Financial Times is a favourite journalist because his mother runs the car park at the Taunton county ground and always finds room for the Mogg Bentley.

There have been a few notable players on the Commons benches. Alfred Lyttelton, who played four Tests in the 1880s, became Secretary of State for the Colonies; Henry Cecil Lowther, who was MP for 55 years, had played for Hampshire and Surrey; Peter Eckersley became MP for Manchester Exchange after captaining Lancashire in the 1930s; and Hubert Ashton, MP for Chelmsford from 1950-64, made a century against the Australians in 1921.

The most successful Test cricketer to become an MP was Stanley Jackson, who averaged 49 from 20 Tests and captained England to victory in the 1905 Ashes. Having married the daughter of the Tory MP for Howdenshire, he succeeded to the seat in a by-election in 1915. Jackson’s fag at Harrow was Winston Churchill, which led David Lloyd-George, on being informed of this, to tell Jackson: “I’ve been looking all my life for the man who gave Churchill a hiding at school.”

A love of cricket unites dashers and duffers in the Commons. I once interviewed Ed Balls, when he was shadow chancellor, in the pavilion at Lord’s, where he was behind the stumps for the parliamentary team against MCC. “More like a shopkeeper than a wicketkeeper,” a watching Stewart tartly remarked. Balls enthusiastically told me about playing dice cricket as a boy and how his favourite part was recalculating the players’ averages after a match.

Balls had a controversial moment in that match when Jo Johnson successfully appealed for LBW against Clare Connor. As the former England women’s captain walked off, Balls interjected. “I’m sure it hit the bat before the pad,” he said and persuaded the umpire to change his mind. In the pavilion, Stanley Johnson was heard to grumble: “He just didn’t want to see a Tory get a wicket.”

Five years later, Stanley’s eldest shook up the country in the EU referendum and the morning after went to play cricket in the Johnsons’ annual fixture against the Earl Spencer XI. It is a match they have never won despite selecting such distant cousins as Monty Panesar Johnson and Kevin Pietersen Johnson.

Over lunch, Boris’s then wife, Marina, confided to guests that the family really “don’t want Boris to run”. They assumed this meant for Downing St, and indeed he soon pulled out of the leadership race, but perhaps she just felt that, like his new legislator, he was more secure biffing the ball over the fielders. “Straight into the confectionery stall and out again,” is how Richie Benaud described one of Botham’s sixes at Headingley in 1981. Sounds much like Johnson’s approach to politics. Perhaps selecting Botham to bat for his team will encourage the prime minister to rediscover his own inner gorilla.

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