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What Our Leaders Could Learn From Football Refs

How a 'Yellow Cards' system could help politics retain talent and trust


I know nothing about Allegra Stratton. But what if she were brilliant? In which case the country has just lost a much-needed star for the sake of a Christmas party. And, what if, it turns out that Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss and vaccine Tsar Kate Bingham had all dropped in for a mince pie as well? Would we be happy to let them go too?


The truth is, we all err. And we probably do so more than we are ready to admit. One of the most humbling stats comes from Atul Gawande - the US surgeon who has written a number of candid bestsellers on the challenges of healthcare. One of the common tasks of physicians is to insert intravenous lines (IVs). There are five simple steps to this; but they must be followed precisely. If they are not, the patient can get infected and, potentially die. Let’s also remember that US physicians are some of the most hard-working, academically gifted, highly trained and generously paid people in the world. Nevertheless, according to Gawande, they get this simple procedure wrong about 30% of the time!


This illustrates how hard it is for busy people to get things right all the time. And that’s the case even when it’s the brightest people and there are lives on the line. How many of us can say we have followed all the Covid restrictions to the letter, honestly? I suspect the country would have collapsed if everyone had.


Yet we expect our politicians and senior civil servants to get things right all the time. This is a tall order. And it is even taller because nowadays we are monitoring them more than ever. Hence, public figures routinely lose jobs over adolescent tweets they cannot even recall making, offhand comments they didn’t realise were recorded, or just being unlucky enough to head off on holiday at the wrong moment.


That may be a fine way to boot out incompetent fools. But the trouble is, as things stand, we do not have a way to save a good person who makes a bad mistake. Instead party leaders face four bad options:

1. Throw the wrongdoer under a bus and fire them. In this case, everyone loses, and where is the sense of loyalty?

2. Defend the unacceptable behaviour as not really that bad. But that just makes them look like they lack any moral compass themselves.

3. Accept some ridiculous lie that damages the credibility of the leader and the wrongdoer. E.g. ‘I drove to Barnard Castle to check my eyesight.’

4. Join in the deceit (‘there was no Christmas party’); doing yet more damage to their leadership, to politics and to their party.


Even worse is when – as we have just seen - a leader cycles through all the bad options, blithely torching every last whit of credibility and trust.


There has to be a better way, and there is. Party leaders should learn from football refs and employ a system of yellow cards. When a decent politician or civil servant crews up, the leader should wave a yellow card. Translated, that means, ‘If you weren’t really good at your job I would fire you.’ The offender gets a good ticking off privately, a public censure and the threat of one too many of these and they’re out.


Crucially, everyone understands a yellow card. The public get their pound of flesh, the media get their turkey shoot and the opposition get their ballyhoo at the dispatch box. But after that, it’s done. No lies need to be told or excuses fabricated. The offence is acknowledged, the crime is punished, and the sin is atoned. It’s all fair enough. The world can move on. And we can keep great people who, like the rest of us, have their off days.


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