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Fans dressed in England colours celebrating at a match
Excitement is building around the country for the contest ahead. Shutterstock/Jacob Lund

Little evidence suggests Rishi Sunak will benefit from a football feelgood factor by holding a July election – it may even be an own goal

Amid the shock of prime minister Rishi Sunak’s unexpected election announcement, it has not gone unnoticed that the July 4 date coincides with this summer’s European Championships in Germany. England and Scotland are competing in the tournament – though UK football fans will be relieved to know that the election won’t interfere too much with their viewing plans. July 4 is a rest day for the tournament, with no matches taking place.

Is this timing purely coincidental or has prime minister Rishi Sunak hoping that a general air of national pride and jubilation around the football will help his chances? If it’s the latter, he may be sorely disappointed.

International sport – especially where the national team is perceived to be successful – is thought to have wider effects on people beyond the game itself. This is often called sport’s “feelgood factor”.

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This sense that the national mood might lift while the football is on is obviously appealing to someone in Sunak’s position. He had to call an election at some point and polls point to the public being heavily against him. He needs all the help he can get. And with the tournament running parallel to the election campaign for nearly three weeks, Sunak may also hope the “bread and circuses” of the Euros will provide a positive media backdrop.

Nevertheless, the notion that sport brings a feelgood factor doesn’t actually stand up to much scrutiny. If Sunak is hoping to capitalise on the football, it’s a decision based on intuition more than evidence.

Three men dressed as knights, draped in the England flag.
Fans are already preparing their costumes for the election. Shutterstock/Joe M O'Brien

Undoubtedly, governments never want to forgo an opportunity to wrap themselves in the flag and bask in the afterglow of a sporting triumph. But while the reflective glory may provide some short-term symbolic value and prestige to national governments, this tends to be overstated and mythologised. Harold Wilson’s 1966 general election victory is invariably discussed in the same breath as England’s World Cup victory in the same year – despite the election preceding the Wembley final by over three months. After Bobby Moore had lifted the Jules Rimet trophy, Wilson is reported to have quipped that, “England only win the World Cup when Labour are in power.”

There are, in theory, some political benefits from sports events. As moments of (relative) national unity, they can provide a rally-round-the-flag effect that is hard to match during peacetime. Yet, there is very little evidence that sporting events have a positive impact on the popularity of the government, much less provide direct electoral payoffs. What’s more, nearly all of this research is focused on the political effects of hosting a sporting event. If an effect can’t be found under these circumstances, it’s probably less likely that one would exist when a team is merely participating in a tournament.

And Wilson certainly feared the opposite when he stood for re-election and lost in 1970. While he publicly took a very different tone to 1966 that year, decrying the insinuation that his defeat was related to England’s loss to West Germany just four days before the election, he had, during the campaign feared “the government would suffer if the England footballers were defeated on the eve of polling day”. Amid a downbeat and despondent English electorate, Wilson’s Labour had lost 60 seats, having led in the polls just a few weeks before, handing a surprise victory to Edward Heath’s Conservatives.

In his published diaries, Anthony Crosland, then local government minister and later foreign secretary, went further, blaming the defeat on “a mix of party complacency and the disgruntled Match of the Day millions”.

Rishi Sunak talking to voters around a table.
Sunak asks Welsh voters if they’re looking forward to ‘all the football’. Alamy

This legendary incident perhaps helps explain why the idea persists that a large sports events affect politics – and why Sunak hopes for a poll boost off the back of England successes. He may even secretly hope that if Scotland does well, it will boost support for the struggling Scottish National Party, which would come at Labour’s expense.

However, Sunak had already misstepped on this front on day one of the campaign. Asking a group of Welsh voters (whose national team did not qualify for this summer’s championships): “So are you looking forward to all the football?”. This perhaps tells us all we need to know about the prime minister’s attempts to hitch his wagon to the vagaries of the national sport.

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