One Hundred Days Of Attitude

After just three months, the left-leaning, motor-mouthed Tony Banks has become one of the most high-profile members of Tony Blair's government. How can this be?
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The Independent Culture
ONE HUNDRED D

The New Minister of Sport and Heritage is gliding twinkle-toed across the lobby of the House of Commons with a statuesque black woman dressed in beige. All eyes swivel to watch their progress across the floor of Pugin's echoing, mock-Gothic chamber. He moves silkily by her side, like a ballroom dancer.

"Bye Tessa," he says. Tessa Sanderson, the medal-winning javelin thrower, turns and lifts an Olympian arm to wave farewell. Such glamour.

He two-steps over. "Back in a bit. Got to make a call: my father-in-law's dying," he says.

Oh. Is this Tony Banks's famous wit surfacing at the earliest opportunity? We shall see.

Every profile of the new minister has labelled him a "vaudeville performer", a "music-hall act", and his first days of ministerial office have certainly generated gales of laughter. He greeted Tony Blair's offer of his "Lottery win" of a post with a raucous "Fuck me", then giggled to reporters that he hadn't a clue where his office was.

Since then, hardly a week has gone by without some new gaffe: most recently, he told his local east-London newspaper that the national anthem should be banned from football matches and other sports events - not a line ever likely to become government policy.

This is the man who, in his days at the GLC, voted to abolish the Festival Hall's champagne bar because it was too elitist, who issued the infamous invitation to Lindi St Clair, aka Miss Whiplash, to launch her book at the House of Commons, who once called Kenneth Clarke "a pot-bellied old soak" and described Nicholas Soames as "his own personal food mountain".

But now, as Banks glides back across the lobby, the prankster has vanished. He is ashen-faced.

"Dead," he says, hand rubbing his jaw as if to ease a toothache as he brushes aside my condolences. A youthful 54, Banks's grey hair is carefully bouffed above a lined brow and laughter-creased cheeks which for once are not laughing. As he leads the way to an empty interview room he tells me that his own father is dead, too, but remains a "great influence" on him.

During the Second World War Banks's father was a sergeant major in the 57th brigade of the Eighth Army in north Africa. When he wasn't fighting Rommel, Banks Senior was a Labour Party organiser, collecting votes from his desert-rat colleagues for the 1945 election.

BANKS HIMSELF was born in Belfast in 1943 and moved to London just as Attlee was entering Number 10. He grew up in council houses in Brixton and Tooting. These days he and his wife Sally share their home in Stratford with two cats, Felix and Buzz ("because he looks like Buzz Lightyear"). But when he was a boy back in the Fifties the family kept an even greater menagerie - dogs, cats, tortoises and racing pigeons.

His dad ran the household. "I always thought mum ran everything. It was only when my old man died that I realised he'd been running the show. Mum even had to ask my wife how to cook!" His dad had known everything, from which joints to demand from the local butcher to how best to transform them into steaming piles of meat, always with two veg, for the supper table. (Banks is now a vegetarian, and once famously declared: "If people wish to eat meat and run the risk of dying a horrible, lingering, hormone-induced death after sprouting extra breasts and large amounts of hair it is, of course, entirely up to them.")

For all the kitchen busyness his father was no New Man. "You didn't cross him," says Banks. "I loved my dad but I didn't love the beltings he used to give us." He shifts uncomfortably.

School offered him no respite from harsh discipline. He went to Archbishop Tenison's, a grammar school in Kennington (mysteriously changed in his Who's Who entry to Kensington - presumably a typographical slip, though Banks would certainly see the funny side). His classroom balcony overlooked the Oval, and from it young Tony was transfixed by the Surrey team of the Fifties. He was known as the class troublemaker, a label he still resents. "I've never thought I was a troublemaker, but I just wouldn't take orders unless I understood the reason behind them. Why should I?" Such bolshiness led to threats of expulsion and canings, and eventually to failed exams - which left him working as a clerk to put himself through night school and back on track for university (York and the LSE).

Following a stint as a trade-union research officer, Banks joined the GLC in 1970, eventually becoming its chairman in 1986, the year of its demise. After three failed attempts, he was elected as MP for Newham North West in 1983, quickly establishing a reputation as a Commons rebel by threatening to resign as London whip over the suspension of his friend Ron Brown MP. Later, he really did resign as Neil Kinnock's social services spokesman rather than support a motion to send British troops to the Gulf War.

These early brushes with authority have left their mark. Banks's attitude towards those in power has always been that they are there to be tested and mocked. Now, as a minister, he must learn to hand out the orders: how will he cope?

One interested observer will be Ken Livingstone, his old comrade and one-time boss from the GLC. Livingstone is the politician with whom Banks is most regularly compared: both Londoners, both former members of the GLC's "loony left", both media-friendly and, well, fun-loving. But times have changed, and the man who lived in Livingstone's shadow for so long at the GLC has leapfrogged to the big time in parliament, where Red Ken's shining star is confined to the backbenches. What happened?

"Ken's a mate," Banks insists, an edge creeping into his voice which contradicts those who have suggested otherwise. "I think Ken has squandered his talents, which is a great tragedy. When he arrived he was better known to the public than someone like Michael Heseltine. Walking down the street people would point and say, 'There's Ken, there's Ken'." He shakes his head sadly. "His attention got diverted, he wasn't willing to start from the bottom again and he never got the chance to build on what he had."

Banks, on the other hand, didn't make the mistake of acting like a prefect when he was still a new boy. Wasting his talent remains his greatest fear. "I'm running out of time. There's things I haven't done and I ain't no spring chicken."

While Iain Sproat, his predecessor as sports minister, will be remembered for little more than a good nickname (Deep Sproat) and a predilection for schoolboy boxing, Banks's stamp on office is already sharply defined - though not perhaps in the way Peter Mandelson would choose. The media have pounced on Banks's more outlandish suggestions with glee; his boss, culture secretary Chris Smith, must be tiring of "clarifying" his remarks.

"There are plenty of journalist scum out there who'd like to get me," he says defensively, the famous Banks mouth kicking into gear at last. "I'd be a nice scalp to get, wouldn't I?" He juts his heavy jaw out aggressively. "But I'm not going to offer myself up to them on a plate. Fuck 'em."

But surely, I counter, Banks has been courting trouble for years, and continues to do so - what about his recent (and short-lived) plan for a UK football team, for instance? It couldn't have been better calculated to have the stuffed shirts of the FA choking on their half-time meat pies.

"A lot of people are so tight-arsed about discussing things," he replies, clasping his fist demonstratively. "All I said was, 'Hey, what about this?' If they then say, 'What a load of bollocks' - fair enough." He seems to inflate with outrage.

Despite his protestations, he has certainly lived up to his ambition to "shake things up" in his new job. His criticism of the Tory-supporting chairman of the UK Sports Council, Lord MacLaurin, was swiftly followed by the peer's resignation. More recently the appointment of the former Tory MP David Mellor as head of the government's Football Taskforce raised eyebrows on both sides of the House.

Still, Banks does seem slowly to be developing a sense of ministerial responsibility. As a backbencher, in January, he proposed a parliamentary motion that "England should not stage the 2006 World Cup. A South African claim would be superior to that of any European country." Only four months later Banks, the sports minister, told the Press Association, "One thing we need to show is that the Government is entirely behind the FA" in its bid to stage the 2006 World Cup.

Jealous rivals may jibe that this proves Banks will betray his socialist roots for preferment, but only time will reveal the extent to which this is really the case. He has a strong streak of idealism - he voted for Margaret Beckett in the leadership election and against the abolition of Clause 4 - and that means his career may well be put second to his beliefs if necessary.

His ideals are unlikely to get him into too much trouble in the sports ministry, though, and Banks is canny enough to realise that his new position was hand-picked by Blair and Mandelson precisely because of his left-wing views and famous mouth. After all, "I can hardly start World War Three from the sports ministry, can I?" he says.

As his full title of Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Minister for Sport) would suggest, it's not all football and fun. His other duties include listing buildings, which means he has to be something of an architectural historian too.

"I know a lot more about that than people give me credit for," Banks chips in quickly. But the strange juxtaposition of his two new roles makes him smile. "I find it quite strange. Like being on a council as chairman of tramways and fine arts. Then again," he grins, anticipating his own joke, "I'm also responsible for listing sports buildings."

The sports ministry might be considered a political graveyard (cf Robert Atkins, Richard Tracey, etc) but Banks still harbours other ambitions. Back in 1990 his proposal for a Mayor of London was pooh-poohed by his detractors. Six years on Tony Blair put forward the same idea: "And all of a sudden it was, 'Oh what a stunning idea, a man of some brilliance,'" quips Banks, adopting a plummy accent. "That's when you realise that in politics it ain't what you say, it's who says it."

But until Banks finally makes it to Mayor, his third role, albeit unofficial, is as scourge of the huntsman. He has already been named Enemy No 1 by The Field magazine. "Oh good," he shouts, when he hears of this new notoriety. "Can't I be Enemy No 1 plus one!" The thought of the recent hunt supporters' rally in Hyde Park nearly gives Banks a seizure. "Hunting is a perversion, anyone who can inflict that sort of savagery is, by definition, savage themselves."

But didn't Trotsky love to rest from Red Army action by hunting wild boars in Russian forests? Wasn't Engels a member of the Cheshire Hunt? Banks is unmoved by this appeal to socialist tradition. If anything he gets more cross.

"Abuse of animals doesn't get me angry. It gets me homicidal. I see pictures of bear-baiting it makes me go mad. Give me a machine gun and prime it at that point." The Banks mouth is going at full pelt, roaring along, pausing only to splutter on venomous adjectives or to choke on unpleasant nouns ... like huntsmen.

The only topic to get Banks more worked up than hunting is football, in particular Chelsea Football Club. Banks has the paranoic superstition of a true fan. It was he who was blamed for the rumour that John Major, a fellow fan, was a jinx on the club's fortunes. According to Banks, every time Major's fixed grin appeared in the director's box the terraces quivered in fear. But he is pleased to announce that the jinx has stopped now Major is no longer in Number 10.

Banks believes that he himself had a hand in Chelsea's performances in last season's FA Cup. Victory in the final came only after he had worn the same Armani suit all season. "I was wearing this winter suit in January when we won in the third round so I had to keep wearing it. Come May I was bloody boiling."

This superstition was also used to excuse his crossed fingers, caught on television, as he swore his allegiance to the Crown as one of its new ministers. He still refuses to admit it was anything more than a good- luck gesture, despite his frequently recorded derision for all things royal. But last week's call for a ban on the national anthem at football matches must reinforce those who suggested his crossed fingers were the intentional defiance of an avowed republican.

So would he stand for the national anthem at a football match? "I do what I have to do," he says, some of the good cheer vanishing from his small, intense eyes, and a hard edge returning to his voice, reminding us that it might not be a good idea to cross this chirpy Eastender.

Briskly, Banks finishes the interview with a "right then", suddenly keen to get out to watch the annual Commons v Lords tug-of-war. He is the Commons' official cheerleader.

OUT ON the pavilioned lawn he hands me his scarlet Vicenza tie and navy Armani jacket complete with Macmillan Cancer Appeal pin. "Harold Macmillan innit," he winks. "Only joking." With his shirt sleeves rolled up he looks like an enthusiastic father on sports day.

Gone is the melancholic fretting over his father-in-law's death, afraid that his own time is running out. His smile is as fixed and wide as a tuxedoed waltzer on Come Dancing as he shouts asides to the lines of parliamentary workers. "The horny-handed sons of toil keep losing," he shakes his head ruefully then breaks into a grin, "Obviously the Lords got all the food while we were starving somewhere." The crowd roars and claps. Banks the music-hall act has appeared.

Back for his jacket and tie, he worries whether the green helium balloons about to be loosed into the darkening sky will damage the environment.

A woman with a high-pitched Home Counties accent begins to thank one and all and prepares to release the balloons. "Oooh," says Banks excitedly, "She might go up with them." He looks down and waves to an imaginary crowd disappearing beneath him and shrieks, "Goodbye, goodbye," in a mock-posh accent.

The crowds begin to file away to a celebration dinner. "Not going because the Lottery people are paying for it," he explains, grinning over his shoulder as he waltzes off. "Well, it might be misconstrued." !

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