Pressuring to help the Saudis over Newcastle is on brand for this government

Date published: Friday 27th May 2022 8:14 - Ian King

Boris Johnson with Mohammad Bin Salman of the Saudi PIF and Newcastle United

There’s evidence that the government applied pressure for the Premier League to approve the Newcastle takeover, which is certainly on-brand.


As the freshly financially plumpened Newcastle United prepare to start their first summer dripping with oil money, the football equivalent to inputting the cheat codes to get infinite lives on a video game, some interesting details have started to emerge regarding the British government’s involvement in getting the contentious takeover approved by the Premier League in the first place.

A report by the Guardian has stated that ‘extensive efforts to facilitate the deal’ were made by minister for investment Lord Gerry Grimstone from June 2020 on. The deal had run aground amid concerns about Saudi piracy of Premier League and other sports TV rights which had been legitimately bought by the Qatari broadcaster BeIN. The Premier League finally approved the takeover in October 2021, stating that it had ‘received legally binding assurances’ – they did not confirm what these assurances were, still less which laws those concerned might actually be bound by – that the Saudi state would not be involved in the running of Newcastle United.

In response to being asked how the league would know whether Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who is also the chairman of Public Investment Fund, was giving orders to the club’s directors, chief executive Richard Masters replied: “In that instance, I don’t think we would know. [But] I don’t think it is going to happen.” In summary, the decision-making process of the Premier League over this seems to be shrouded in confidentiality clauses. Predictably, Newcastle’s own calls for an end to this culture of secrecy ended as soon as they got what they wanted.

That this particular government should have been lobbying on behalf of Saudi Arabia shouldn’t be a great surprise. Ethics seem to be fairly near the bottom of their list of priorities, and they have appeared at times close to desperate to invite Saudi investment in this country. But the government is said to have been involved in this despite public claims by Boris Johnson that the government had had no involvement in it at all.

When the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, an Urgent Question was asked in parliament about the news that the Saudi government had executed 81 people in one day and how this impacted upon them as a fit and proper owner of a football club in this country. Unsurprisingly, government minister Amanda Milling didn’t really answer the question: “The Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund is a significant investor, having invested billions in the UK and other western markets. It operates across a range of sectors. We welcome the purchase of Newcastle United, a sign that the UK remains a great place to invest.”

The Labour MP for Newcastle Central, Chi Onwurah, followed this up by saying: “In utterly condemning this atrocious, horrific massacre, I speak for many, many of my constituents and Newcastle United fans. Whereas football fans have no control or influence over the ownership of their beloved clubs, and especially in a Premier League awash with dirty money, the UK government has both control and influence in who it trades with, in who it engages with. Will she tell us what she is going to do with that control and influence… Is she going to make it absolutely clear that sportswashing is not an option?”

Milling replied: “With regards to Newcastle United, we’ve never had a role at any point in the club’s prospective takeover, and this has been a commercial matter for the Premier League.”

Onwurah, for her part, was previously quite heavily involved in the campaign for ‘greater transparency’ of the rejection of the takeover by the Premier League, which had largely been coordinated by the Newcastle United Supporters Trust, who were heavily in favour of the takeover being waved through. She certainly didn’t seem particularly concerned by the possibility that the owners of the football club in her constituency might engage in anything like an “atrocious, horrific massacre”. And frankly, five months after permission had been granted might have been a little late to be asking whether a government minister was “going to make it absolutely clear that sportswashing is not an option”. Two months earlier, Newcastle had spent more than any other club in Europe in the January transfer window. The sportswashing had already started. Milling didn’t bother answering this question either.

Should we be surprised if the government is lying over this? Considering everything that we’ve seen over the 18 months since they took power, probably not. It long ago reached the stage at which this government seemed to become pathological about lying. As a minister, lying to parliament should be a resigning matter, but we also already know that this no longer appears to apply. Lord Grimstone is understood to have approached the then-chair of the Premier League, Gary Hoffman, going so far as to offer to broker a solution between the league and Saudi authorities over the league’s BeIN piracy concerns.

The claim that the Premier League makes its own decisions, with its inference that the government was strictly neutral on the matter, is also broadly disingenuous. He may well not have been party to the final decision, but it is evidently clear that Grimstone was leaning heavily on the Premier League to wave this through. Considering that the league itself is ultimately a body made up of its member clubs and that many of them were vociferously opposed to this happening, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that the league may have been influenced by Grimstone, even if they honestly believe they weren’t. That it was subsequently approved after all this pressure hardly suggests that they could, and the lack of clarity over how this decision was reached only adds to the feeling that there may have been considerably more to all of this than meets the eye.

The current government clearly sees football as a vote-winner, even in these divided times. Indeed, it becomes less surprising that Johnson should have issued a good luck message to Rangers ahead of their Europa League final against Eintracht Frankfurt, when we consider that Rangers are probably the most divisive club in British football and Johnson’s government only seems to thrive on creating further division. Such is the miasma of incompetence, untruth and trolling with which we’ve been faced that it’s impossible to say whether, when he wished England and Scotland good luck for the Euro 2020 finals last summer but forgot to mention Wales, he didn’t know whether they were involved as well, didn’t care, or was just doing it to annoy a part of the country that is broadly unlikely to vote for him. Or possibly all three.

But as an unashamedly populist government, they seem to be investing a lot of time in the game when there are a lot of other pressing matters that they could be applying themselves to. But when they find the time, they do. In December 2021, Michael Gove found £1m from down the back of the sofa towards the purchase of Gigg Lane from the government’s supposed ‘levelling-up fund’, following the collapse of Bury FC two years earlier. Would he have done so were Bury North, the constituency within which Gigg Lane is situated, not the most marginal seat in the country and one snatched by the Conservatives by a majority of just 105 in December 2019?

And that question can be extended elsewhere, too. Would Johnson’s government have made similar arrangements for, say, Liverpool, had they fallen into the same position that Chelsea did earlier this year? We’ll likely never know for certain; that it’s even a question asked in good faith says something for the way in which this country is being governed. We remain waiting with bated breath for details of what the independent regulator for football will look like following the flurry of headlines that accompanied confirmation that it will be happening. Again, the only satisfactory response to these headlines is that we’ll believe it when we see it.

Governments used to be wary of football precisely because it was so divisive, and perhaps that was a good thing, because when they have got involved with the game before, things haven’t always gone particularly well. Everybody remembers when David Cameron got Aston Villa – the team he professed to ‘support’ – and West Ham United – a team who wear identical colours to Villa – mixed up. Tony Blair was an enthusiastic proponent of a British league to the extent that he became, by his own admission, ‘quite obsessed’ by an idea that would have gone down like a cup of cold sick with most supporters. The less said about former health secretary Matt Hancock’s attempts to play the game, the better. And anyway… when the government is pressurising a football body over the involvement of ownership of a club that may be related to another government, perhaps it’s time for everybody concerned to pause, take a breath, and consider whether this might all have gone a little too far.

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