Gary Neville has pointed to former health secretary Matt Hancock telling footballers to take a pay cut and “play their part” during the Covid pandemic as the moment he was inspired to get involved in Labour politics.
The former England footballer said the Tory politician’s remarks “sparked me into speaking politically” as he appeared at Labour conference in Liverpool to call for a change in government.
He attacked chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng’s decision to cut the 45p top income tax rate and corporation tax rates even though Neville benefited from both directly, saying footballer friends were among those who wanted to “pass money back” to those in need this winter.
In an interview with the Guardian, he said: “There wasn’t one single wealthy person on over £150,000 a year I believe last week who asked for more money in their pocket, wanted more money in their pocket or expected money in their pocket.
“They were expecting the government in this budget to put emergency measures in place to help people be able to afford their energy bills over the winter, to afford food [for] their families. It’s almost blatant that they’re just helping their own.
“I do benefit from it, along with another 658,000 people, but if you’ve got any dignity or honour about you, I think you’d stand aside – I know I would – and say: ‘No, not this time Kwasi.’ You make sure that money goes to people who are struggling to pay their energy bills this winter.”
The football pundit and businessman, asked about his wealthy friends who also benefited from the changes, said: “They’ve got good hearts. They’ve been brought up in working-class communities and, whilst they’re wealthy, they don’t forget their roots. They pass their money back their families, friends, they want to invest back in their communities, they do things for charity.”
He added: “So footballers, while they were attacked by Matt Hancock early on in the pandemic, which brought me to life and sparked me into speaking politically, you know … footballers aren’t the people we should be attacking here.
“We’re all watching at five o’clock every night that Downing Street briefing comes on and that guy comes on and I’m thinking: ‘Come on a minute, give me a break.’
Despite his newfound political activism, Neville ruled out standing as an MP, saying: “I wouldn’t, because I like what I do in Greater Manchester with my businesses, and I like what I do in football far too much. I do honestly believe I can be more vocal and more honest on the outside.”
He also ruled out running to succeed Andy Burnham as Greater Manchester mayor because it would involve giving up his business interests and watching football at the weekend.
He said there were other high-profile figures in the world of football who would come out in support of the Labour party, but suggested they could be put off by potential abuse.
“There is, but the amount of times I’ve been called a champagne socialist or a woke lefty. I’m no woke lefty, I want businesses to make profit so they can invest it back into their facilities and staff and product. I’m not a socialist. I want there to be an economy that’s thriving, but I also want us to have fantastic public services.”
Neville said he was “disappointed” with the state of the country and that it was “time for a change”. He added: “It’s pretty obvious that this is a tired, failing government of 12 years. If a manager stays in situ too long in a football club, if a political party stays too long, then you need that change.”
He claimed the Tories had come to rely on crises to avoid talking about public services. “They like the idea of pin-balling from crisis to crisis because it provides them air cover for their incompetence,” he said.