Over the last 30 years we’ve seen, and spoken to, most of the Sports Minister’s in Government, so we are pretty used to the fact that what they deliver is usually much less than they promise, but Nigel Huddleston takes this to new levels.
It is a fact of life in most ministerial ranks, especially the junior ones, where the politician is either so keen for promotion that they are afraid to do anything controversial, and keep their head down, or have so little authority, that the civil servants in a department end up telling them what they can and cannot do.
From the Sports Minister’s we’ve known, there have been exceptions to this rule. Tracey Crouch was one who was prepared to get stuck in, not always accept the status quo, and tried genuinely to change things for the better. Her absence from Government, and particularly from the DCMS, has been a blow that the Department has not really recovered from.
Today we have Nigel Huddleston, a politician both with an eye on his career, as well as being possibly the least powerful Sports Minister in history, with sporting decisions, as with most of the other decisions during the pandemic, taken by Downing Street.
The problem with Nigel Huddleston is that you get the feeling even if Downing Street were not calling the tune, he would still be the willing courtier, deferentially treating discredited organisations like the FA simply to keep his head below the parapet, in the hope that a promotion might come his way when all this blows over.
And he is a man of personal charm, like rather a lot of politicians. So we’ve seen him over the past year trying to use his undoubted charm to defuse organisations or individuals who might, if he’s not careful, take a swipe at him for not doing very much.
But charm doesn’t get you everywhere. The problem is that if you keep going around telling everyone they are great, but don’t actually do anything, then you end up being found out. Perhaps Mr Huddleston, like many a politician, plans on being moved to another post just before he gets found out.
Let’s look at three examples:
Last year when the DCMS announced a £300 million fund for lower tier football clubs, it sounded a pretty good on the surface. But as former FA chairman David Bernstein commented in his recent scathing letter about the FA, the money has simply been wasted, being used for lower tier clubs to top up the wages of their fit athletes who they wish to retain, rather than actually going into supporting community facilities for the inactive.
As one lower tier football club chairman told us, without wishing to be named for obvious reasons: “We got a substantial grant from the £300 million fund and we were delighted. It meant we could give the money to our best players to retain them for next season. I don’t really understand why we got the money, but we were very happy to have it”.
This sentiment was echoed by a number of lower tier football clubs who privately could hardly believe that they were being given money by the Government to help pay the wages of their talented, supremely fit best players. As Mr Bernstein said, couldn’t this money have gone into supporting genuine community sport?
But for Mr Huddleston, who signed off the £300 million funding, even though he had little hand in approving it, it made good political sense, even if it was, as Mr Bernstein said, a total waste of money.
Secondly, with referees issues being so prominent recently, surrounding top referees such as Mike Dean receiving death threats and Darren Drysdale involved in heated on pitch arguments with players, Ref Support chief executive Martin Cassidy was becoming more and more prominent on the airwaves in his criticism of how the beautiful game was being organised and run – a criticism which might easily have extended to the Sports Minister himself.
But this is where the Sports Minister stepped in, asking for a private discussion with Mr Cassidy, promising very little but smoothing over the waters with a dollop of charm. Another potential critic to be kept on side, just long enough before he realises, as Mr Cassidy surely will, that what Mr Huddleston might’ve suggested he will do simply won’t materialise – but by that time the plan is that Mr Huddleston will have hopped to another post in Government.
But most damning of all for Mr Huddleston is his refusal to support Government policy, at the expense of his career objectives.
In 2019 the DCMS issued guidance saying that small sided leagues were important in getting inactive people into regular physical exercise and facilities should be encouraging them.
The problem was that the FA and Football Foundation, as they usually do working as a secret single unit behind the scenes, didn’t believe in the guidance. So they were not prepared to actively support it.
The small sided league providers in the UK, representing 2 million inactive people, wanted Mr Huddleston to promote the guidance, but the FA and the Football Foundation, representing less than a quarter of that number of very fit male adults, preferred the opposite.
Mr Huddleston’s problem was that if he upset the FA or the Foundation, then that wasn’t going to be a good career move, so he simply ignored the guidance and refused to promote it.
Here at Leisure Leagues we even pointed out to him that the Government guidance was being ignored in his own backyard constituency of mid Worcestershire, but that didn’t trouble him either.
The fact that tens of thousands of inactive people are unable to engage in regular physical exercise wasn’t a concern of Mr Huddleston’s. Much more important was making sure those with loud voices, the FA, The Football Foundation or even the pubs in his constituency didn’t start criticising him.
Nigel Huddleston is no fool. He knows how to get on. You might say that ignoring Government policy could be a career threatening move – but not if it’s kept quiet, and no one ends up knowing about it.
Over the last eight months Nigel Huddleston has had five occasions to support the Government’s own policy. And on five occasions he’s refused to support it. Some Sports Minister. Some politician.
Mr Huddleston plans a career move before his inaction is too much exposed. The problem is that politicians who are big on charm, but absent on delivery, never quite get to the highest ministerial positions. You’ve got to actually do something.
The problem for Mr Huddleston is that more than likely he will end up back in the standard ranks, without his promotion, and wonder, like a lot of politicians we have spoken to over the years, why he didn’t actually do something worthwhile that made a real difference.
But all this could be premature. There is still time for Nigel Huddleston to do something worthwhile. Perhaps he will start questioning whether or not the £300 million grant was well spent. Perhaps he will genuinely, as Mr Cassidy wants him to, act against the FA and tell them to get their house in order on match officials with sterner punishments on players.
Or perhaps he will actually try and enforce his Government’s own policy on getting inactive people into regular physical exercise through the medium of small sided leagues, which the Government itself has said works best, even at the risk of upsetting the FA and the Football Foundation, powerful voices, but not representative of the real people on the ground.
There is still time for Mr Huddleston to redeem himself. And if he does, we will be the first ones to shout about it.Back to Blog