Champions League final: Why are Britain’s most senior politicians avoiding discussing Paris?

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On the night of May’s Champions League final in Paris, the Labor Party realized it had a problem because four of its Liverpool-supporting members attended an event where people were crushed and then attacked by riot police. Later, many were dragged across the street by locals, beaten up, robbed and in some cases, molested.

Immediately, texts were sent to each of these politicians, to check on their welfare. Steve Rotheram, the metro mayor for the Liverpool city region, was unable to receive him because the phone in his pocket was stolen along with other belongings including all forms of identification.

Upon telling the police of his experience, Rotheram was given the reply: “Welcome to Paris.” Officers only realized who he was when a group of Liverpool fans arbitrated, telling them, “that’s our mayor” and with that, they did a Google search and realized it might be in their professional interest to help.

Rotheram proceeded to the Stade de France where, in one of the executive lounges, he spotted Aleksander Ceferin. Shaken up, he approached UEFA’s president and told him about the carnage outside.

When Ceferin explained that the organization he leads had “killed” themselves to get the final on in Paris after it was moved at short notice from Saint Petersburg and Rotheram reacted to that by saying he hoped the effort did not come at the expense of safety, Ceferin went cold and scuttled away to discuss his broader response in a huddle of suited men.

To Rotheram, it did not seem that Ceferin wanted to entertain the idea that UEFA might have got something wrong in their preparations. Since returning to Britain, he has been relentless in his public pursuit of letting the truth be known along with another Labor MP from Merseyside, Ian Byrne, who on Tuesday sent a letter to the French sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera asking her to prove once and for all with evidence that ticket forgeries on an “industrial scale” caused some of the problems because “the ongoing smearing of innocent people cannot continue…”

Labor figures on Merseyside have received central support from the party they represent. Lucy Powell, the shadow secretary for digital, culture, media and sport has been in charge of the response and nine days after the final, she told parliament about how Liverpool fans in particular were “mistreated” and “wronged”.

Labor say it is Powell who speaks for the party on the issue and yesterday she told The Athletic: “From the top down, the Labor party stands with Liverpool fans following the atrocious treatment they’ve received from the French government and UEFA. That’s why we strongly supported Ian Byrne’s urgent question, forcing ministers to come to parliament and demand the government gets to the truth about the incident and hold those accountable. The government should use every avenue to ensure the French investigate and fully apologize. Labor will continue to support Liverpool fans in their fight for justice.”

Labour’s leader, however, is yet to express any feelings about the night. As of yesterday morning, Sir Keir Starmer had posted on Twitter 57 times since May 28 and not one of those posts related to the scandal of Paris. While it is true that politicians should not be judged by the content of their social media pages, it does seem unusual that the efforts of Powell – one of his most senior appointments – has escaped his attention on such a significant platform.

Meanwhile, Sadiq Khan, who was positioned in the stadium as a Liverpool supporter as the mood turned dark, started Tweeting again two days after the final but there was no mention of where he’d been over the weekend.

Instead, he returned to social media with a comment about the Elizabeth line on London’s tube map and a “huge economic boost for London”. A month and nearly 500 Tweets later, you would not know Khan – the capital’s Labor mayor and a Starmer ally – was in Paris had it not been for photographs placing him there.

Boris Johnson is loathed in Liverpool because of his comments about the causes of the Hillsborough disaster, as well as his political allegiance as a Conservative. The city has been left-leaning since 1979 but even he, albeit through a spokesperson, called for UEFA and the French authorities to carry out a full investigation because of “deeply upsetting and concerning footage”.

The French government and UEFA subsequently announced their own separate reviews. While Liverpool supporters appeared in front of the senate last week before an apology of sorts came this week from the country’s under-fire interior minister Gerald Darmanin, there remains huge concern about the direction of UEFA inquiries given it appointed its own man to lead a supposedly “independent” examination.

The process, therefore, already feels like a kid marking his own homework because the governing body’s failings should be at the center of this story.


Liverpool fans stuck outside the Stade de France show their match tickets (Photo: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

Will UEFA be empowered by what seems to be a lack of interest from the most influential politicians in Britain? While Johnson has said nothing else about the event since May 30, his sports minister Nigel Huddleston has spoken about the matter in parliament, most recently on June 6. Huddleston met his French counterpart for a virtual conversation the following day where both, according to Conservative sources, agreed that their respective governments will continue to engage in constructive dialogue alongside other relevant authorities on this issue, and that the French Government will set out the findings of its review as soon as possible. The details of this discussion have not yet been relayed to parliament. Labour, in the meantime, insists the party has not forgotten Paris and has agonized over the practical things it can do, insisting Starmer does care despite his silence.

There have also been denials that he took advice from a focus group, as he does with other key decisions, before forming his own conclusion about how to proceed. It has been offered that instead, Labor has assisted with diplomatic aspects including discussions with embassies on how best to prepare for such large-scale events before they happen in the future.

In cold assessment, Labor believes UEFA is not an organization that will be swayed by the words of any politician yet there is an obvious gamble in any leader who really cares staying out of the conversation here, particularly when UEFA’s interest is aligned with those legislators in France attempting to protect a country’s reputation as well as their own careers.

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What would Labor or, indeed, the Conservatives lose (without making any promises), if it called through official channels via their leaders for a full and truly independent inquiry to get to the truth of Saint-Denis and ensure that something like this never happens again whether it involves football or any other sport?

Had hundreds of British theatre-goers in Paris been dragged across the street and attacked for simply being there, it is imaginable the cross-party political noise would have been a lot louder.

Despite the words out of Johnson’s team on May 30, neither he nor Emmanuel Macron, the French president, were willing to express whether the brutal events of Paris formed a part of their discussions following various summits over the last seven days.


Police spray tear gas at Liverpool fans outside the stadium as they queue prior to the UEFA Champions League final at the Stade de France (Photo: Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, it seems more likely that Starmer believes it is simply safer for him to avoid the issue because it is too controversial, especially when his main political opponent is on the run and losing popularity, as indicated by the results in the last two by-elections week.

If that is his approach on Paris, it is not out of character because over the last month he has not signposted his position on the Conservative government’s attempts to dump refugees in Rwanda. While he attacked Johnson for “not lifting a finger” to stop RMT train strikes, he did not support workers for their stance. Instead, Labor politicians were told by whips to stay away from picket lines.

Starmer certainly has not been let down by Labor party members in the north west over Paris. A Labor spokesperson reasons Byrne was chosen to speak in parliament ahead of figures senior to him because his experiences in Paris were lived.

Previously, Powell, Labour’s MP for Manchester Central, defended the right of Liverpool supporters to boo the national anthem while speaking at a BBC Question Time event held in the city where she also condemned the actions of some Manchester City supporters who interrupted a minute’s silence at the FA Cup semi-final in memory of the Hillsborough disaster.

Yet by avoiding visibility and the supposed risks now, Starmer is playing a dangerous game with voters in Liverpool, who might begin to feel history is repeating itself because it does not seem to be receiving the level of support required to defend itself and potentially, begin the process of bringing about genuine change that might make it safer for all British visitors to France for sporting events.

Liverpool is already wary of Starmer after he promised at a rally on the banks of the Mersey river that while on the same leadership campaign trail he would not conduct interviews with the Sun, a publication which has disappeared from the shelves of stockists on Merseyside following its lies about the causes of the Hillsborough.

As Labor leader, he later started co-operating with the newspaper, starting with a column where he tried to turn focus back on the government by laying the blame for food and petrol shortages on ministers.

He should heed a warning from the past. In 1997, the new Labor home secretary Jack Straw was under pressure in Liverpool from families of the victims of Hillsborough along with Merseyside MPs to reopen an inquiry into the disaster.

Two months after Labor came to power, Straw appointed Lord Justice Stuart-Smith to lead a review of the evidence but before that review even began he told officials that he had already looked at the case, concluding there was not enough material to proceed.

Straw’s doubts were not expressed in the House of Commons at the time and early in 1998, the case was closed.

Later that year, Liverpool voted in a Liberal Democrat council which prevailed for 12 years.

(Top photo: Adam Davy/PA Images via Getty Images)

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