In football parlance, with which David Cameron may or may not be conversant, it was an astonishing own goal.
Sports stars, fellow politicians and football fans around the country reacted with amused disbelief on Saturday as the prime minister appeared to forget his long-running claim to be an Aston Villa fan and postured as a West Ham United supporter. The clubs wear similar colours, claret and blue, but it has been widely concluded that this is really no excuse.
The gaffe came when he was celebrating a Britain where people can hold many and diverse allegiances. He told an audience in south London: “We are a shining example of a country where multiple identities work. Where you can be Welsh and Hindu and British, Northern Irish and Jewish and British; where you can wear a kilt and a turban; where you can wear a hijab covered in poppies. Where you can support Man Utd, the Windies and Team GB at the same time. Of course, I’d rather you supported West Ham.”
Offering an explanation for what many conclude is an unforgivable blunder, Cameron told reporters: “I had what Natalie Bennett described as a brain fade. I’m a Villa fan… I must have been overcome by something… this morning. But there we are, these things sometimes happen when you are on the stump.”
Pushed later about his knowledge of Villa, which he said he had supported since watching them beat Bayern Munich in the 1982 European Cup final as a child, Cameron added: “I’m not doing quiz time because I’ll get them all wrong, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. That’s why I became a Villa fan, because my uncle was involved in the club, and back in the early 1980s, with all those successes, and Andy Gray and Brian Little, and that’s what got me going.
“But I don’t go very often, in fact I haven’t been for years and years, but I try and keep up, and I’m hoping we are going to escape the relegation zone, which we’re out of now, and obviously the FA Cup final is very exciting.”
Gary Lineker was one of the first to respond on social media to the slip-up, highlighting Cameron’s enthusiasm last week to use the official prime ministerial Twitter feed to congratulate Aston Villa on their recent FA Cup triumph over Liverpool. “David Cameron has forgotten which football club he supports. Aston Villa last week, West Ham this. Burnley next?” the Match of the Day presenter and former England striker tweeted to his 3.8 million followers. “I’m in the studio. I’ve already worked it into my script #MOTD.”
Comedian Matt Lucas tweeted: “David Cameron just remembered his favourite football team is Weston Villham.”
Former Daily Mirror editor Piers Morgan, an Arsenal fan, prophesied: “This has to cost Cameron the election, surely? How can anyone ‘forget’ which football team they support?”
Burnley fan and former No 10 communications director Alastair Campbell noted he had greaterrespect for Tories such as Winston Churchill’s grandson, Nicholas Soames MP, who were open about their disdain for football. “More respect for people like Nick Soames who once told me he hates football and loves foxhunting. So does @David_Cameron #phoneycameron.”
As Labour woke up to the political hay to be made by a glimpse into prime ministerial lack of authenticity, the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, a Norwich fan who is always keen to revel in Tory discomfort, tweeted: “Hey David Cameron… I’m off to see that football team I support this afternoon. Name escapes me… they play in yellow… Watford?”
Cameron has previously explained his allegiance to Aston Villa on the basis that he was taken to his first match aged 13 by his uncle, former Villa chairman Sir William Dugdale. He was also once pictured jogging around Hyde Park in London in a Villa shirt with “10 Cameron” on the back.
Lord Finkelstein, a Tory peer and columnist for the Times who is close to the prime minister, sought to defend his man. He tweeted: “I went with him in 2007 for first time and was surprised by how keen he was to go and how much he knew about game.”
He added: “Weirdly (and only for interest rather than as a political point) I’ve discovered him MORE of a fan than he lets on, especially since his son took up being a fan in the last couple of years.”In response to further criticism he again tweeted: “He’s been a fan moderately always … I can assure you from attending games with him and plenty of football chat he is Villa fan.”Ron Atkinson, a former Aston Villa manager, admitted that he wouldn’t get confused over his own football allegiance, but added that the prime minister had a lot on his mind: “He’s obviously got confused with the team colours. As long as he gets his own team over the line.”
In 1996 Tony Blair, a supporter of Newcastle United, faced criticism after it was widely reported that he had claimed in a radio interview to remember watching the famous striker Jackie Milburn play, even though Blair would have been four at the time.
The reports also claimed Blair had said he had sat in the Gallowgate end of the club’s stadium, even though there were no seats in that part of the ground at that time. A decade later it emerged that Blair had been misreported by the newspapers. He explained: “People asked two completely separate questions. One, when I used to go and watch Newcastle. Then someone asked me who was the greatest ever footballer, so I said Jackie Milburn. The two elided together. What a lot of trouble I had over it.”
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