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Why the PM trusts Lord Feldman, his ace in a hole

Like politics, there is one arena where trust is not only essential but entirely justified, where it is an unbreakable bond, a peerless measure of someone's integrity and loyalty: the tennis court

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November 24, 2016 23:22

One of my favourite quotes is also one of the most deceptively simple. Ernest Hemingway wasn't always the most faithful of people but I suspect he said nothing more truthful than this: "The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

It's advice we consistently fail to follow. Offices are destroyed by control-freaks who refuse to utilise the talent surrounding them. Business deals are corrupted by a lack of faith between competing egos. Relationships are ruined by a lack of honesty that breeds a lack of trust.

There is one arena, however, where trust is not only essential but entirely justified, where it is an unbreakable bond, a peerless measure of someone's integrity and loyalty: the tennis court. And it is no coincidence that the closest friends of the last two elected Prime Ministers are synonymous with the game, especially doubles. Both, of course, are Jewish and are prime examples of why we excel at one of the only competitive sports that involves lots of standing around, interrupted by sitting down and talking to each other.

Tony Blair relied heavily on the wise and honest counsel of Michael Levy, later to become Lord Levy in recognition of his services to government, charity and Israel. His extraordinary network of influence was, for cynics in the media, built upon the infamous doubles tennis matches he used to stage in the vast back garden of his Mill Hill home.

There were few people that Blair trusted more. He was surrounded by back-stabbers on one side and sycophants on the other and so the tennis court became a far better place to assess someone's authenticity and judgment than the corridors of Number 10.

And then there's Andrew, now Lord Feldman, the man at the centre of the sex, drugs and bullying Tory row that has claimed the life of a party worker and the job of a Minister. Feldman is frequently derided as Prime Minister David Cameron's ''tennis-playing chum'' as if that was a singularly poor reason to have risen so high in public life.

Yet I can think of no better motive to trust someone in politics.

For no other sport builds power's requisite skills like tennis. I know it might feel a little trivial to discuss a political crisis within the context of hitting a ball over the net but to understand why Lord Feldman is an essential ally, you need to understand the game of doubles tennis.

Split-second decision-making, knowing when to pounce and when to stand off, having an innate ability to appreciate what your partner is thinking and is about to do, working in harmony, masking their weaknesses and vice versa, being constantly tactically aware, having total faith in their skills because they have the same in yours, forever cajoling and never criticising. Knowing that if you don't trust this person, you will achieve nothing.

Football, of which Ed Balls is such a fan, is a game for preening individuals who bend and break the rules to gain advantage. Rugby players, like Boris Johnson, seem not to understand the rules and have a problem reining in their over-eagerness. Cricket is an essentially solitary pursuit, full of finesse but bereft of trust except for when two batsmen run between the wickets. Sir John Major, its most potent political admirer, is a case in point. Athletics, as Lord Coe has so amply demonstrated, is a single-minded pursuit of riches no matter what the cost to those closest to you. And golf is just an excuse to wander around while swinging your arms wildly. Sort of like the Scottish Nationalists in Westminster.

It's no coincidence that Lords Feldman and Levy became so trusted by their PMs because of their skills as a tennis partner. There is no one I trust more than my oldest friend, Richard - we rarely see each other and move in different circles. But the unbreakable trust we have was built on the tennis court. It's where we grew to understand each other, to depend on each other and to like each other, to lay out the faults we saw in each other and listen to advice about how we thought we could improve. The only person in the world you can be totally truthful with is your tennis partner because they'll make you a winner.

When I was growing up, pictures of maverick tennis heroes adorned my bedroom walls. Connors, McEnroe, Nastase, Wilander, Leconte. But I liked them most when they were part of a four, when I saw not just a determination to win but a desire to do so with the most trusted person in their lives. Playing for each other not just against each other.

There is a rather sinister sub-plot to the attacks on Feldman for not doing enough to stem the alleged bullying antics and extra-marital affairs of the Conservative Party's Mark Clarke. It seems a trifle unfair for the head of an organisation to know everything about trouble-makers on its fringes, as newspaper editors will no doubt agree. Leaders are meant to delegate after all.

I don't think I've met Feldman, though I wouldn't be surprised to learn he beat me when our school used to visit his. It would be a pity if the PM had to sack one of his closest confidantes because of what a power-crazed idiot got up to behind closed doors, and the subsequent media hounding of an unelected best mate. What bothers me most is that they've patronisingly referred to these two stalwarts of the Jewish community as tennis players, as if that was an insult, as if their privileges derived from a meaningless ability to hit a top spin lob.

In my book, the ultimate privilege is not to be the boss's deputy but to be the one he trusts to stand at the net when he serves. That's the person you want by your side. So, Andrew, if you fancy a rematch the municipal courts in Chiswick are pretty decent. Alternatively, Richard and I are happy to come to Dave's weekend pad if that's easier.

November 24, 2016 23:22

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