Hugh Robertson: Baptism of fire, with more hot potatoes to come

In his first major interview since taking over as Minister for Sport, Hugh Robertson talks about 'stupid' Triesman, his active service in the Gulf War and his sporting loves... from playing village cricket to supporting Chelsea. Alan Hubbard speaks to Hugh Robertson
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The Independent Online

It was late on Saturday evening when, returning to his Kent home after the FA Cup final, Hugh Robertson lifted a glass with his wife Anna to toast his new post as Minister for Sport and the Olympics. No sooner had they said "cheers" when his mobile rang informing him that Lord Triesman had fired a torpedo into England's 2018 World Cup bid. After just a few hours in the job, the proverbial had hit the fan.

"Talk about being thrown in at the deep end," he reflects. "It was quite an induction. The call came at 10.30pm from the BBC asking if I could go on the Sportsweek [radio] programme to talk about the Triesman situation. It was the first I had heard about it. Then there was a call from the bid team to say it was true. The next morning the phone started ringing at 7.55am and things finally quietened down around 8.15pm that evening."

By that time, Robertson had arranged the damage-limitation call from Prime Minister David Cameron to Fifa president Sepp Blatter and diplomatically straight-batted his way through Triesmangate with the dexterity he displays as a middle-order batsman who tops the Parliamentary X1 averages.

"I really hope that this will not affect the bid," he tells us. "I had just taken over as the Opposition sports spokesman when that Panorama programme threatened to derail London's Olympic bid. I remember saying to Seb [Coe] afterwards: 'How does it look?' And he told me they had gone to the IOC and been told: 'You're dead.' But they came back to win the bid, and that offence was of a greater order than what happened last weekend.

"What Triesman did was stupid and unwise but was effectively tied up with things that were happening in his personal life. I think we can get through this, though our competitors will try and use it against us. The core strengths of our bid are still there and will still be in six months' time. I think we have the best technical bid of any and, in the end, there are 24 football people who I hope will vote for football reasons, so fingers crossed."

We meet over coffee in his spacious but as yet sparsely decorated office just off Trafalgar Square, a few days after his installation. He laughs and shakes his head when I ask if his predecessor had left him an unwelcoming note, like that which greeted the incoming Treasury minister. However, had there been one, it might have read: "The hot potato is in the oven."

He says: "There must have been a succession of sports ministers who arrived in this office and thought: 'Now, what am I going to do first?' I have no such problem because this is the most extraordinary and exciting time for British sport. It is very easy. There are three tasks at the moment: to win the 2018 World Cup bid, to deliver the 2012 Olympics and to drive a sports legacy off the back of it."

Under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, the Tories had a miserable procession of sports ministers (with the honourable exception of Colin Moynihan, who got cuffed by the Handbag), who knew naff-all about the subject. At last they have found someone who will give it a decent knock and hopefully carry his bat through to 2012 and beyond. Even some Labourites seem to think so, including the former sports minister Kate Hoey, who says Robertson is someone whom sport can do business with. "He is genuinely interested in getting a better deal for sport and knows that it is the bureaucracy that is holding things back. He is a thoroughly decent person and I am happy to see him as sports minister."

Like Hoey, Robertson says he wants to be the minister for all sport, not just Minister for Sport. "I find that there is a huge amount in sport where I am in 100 per cent agreement with Kate. Personally I feel that the key to success in this job is to be the minister for sport generically, not the minister for football government. I am not going to allow myself to be sucked into an energy-sapping wrangle with football, which clearly has a number of issues that need to be addressed pretty swiftly."

Shortly before his appointment, Robertson had said that "to lose an unusually gifted individual like Ian Watmore [former FA chief executive] tells you there is something badly wrong with the structure of English football".

Now he insists he will persist with the idea of having another independent FA chairman to replace disgraced Labour peer Triesman. "That was a key recommendation of the Burns Review and we support that. What I am clear about is that the FA need a chairman of the very highest quality. They are an organisation requiring strong leadership. But if I start telling them who that leader should be, it is government interference in football and that will go down incredibly badly internationally during a very sensitive period."

Slim and dapper, the MP for Faversham, father of two-and-a-half-year-old James, looks considerably younger than his 47 years, no doubt because he keeps himself pretty fit. He is a member of MCC, plays village cricket, club hockey for Sutton Diamonds Veterans, represented his Army regiment at rugby as a scrum-half and supports Chelsea. He may seem to have all the trimmings of a Tory toff but is far from it. He blends well with sports people and has already proved capable of giving the Government a good kicking.

The headmaster's son from Canterbury (his father was a good cricketer and hockey player and his wife Anna – a former antiques valuer with Bonham's – is a yachtswoman who has competed in the Fastnet) went to Sandhurst and as a Life Guards officer commanded the Household Cavalry on the Queen's Birthday Parade. He saw active service on the Bogside in Londonderry, with a tank regiment during the Gulf war, on the green line between the Turks and the Greeks in Cyprus and as a Major commanding the British attachment in Sarajevo during the siege of the city in 1994.

"It was an extraordinarily grisly time but it has made me the man I am," he says. "Training for an army active service tour gives you a sort of basic understanding of what an elite athlete goes through. But it has also given me, possibly, a sense of perspective that eludes some people who have just come up through the political system.

"I'd always had a bat or ball in my hand since I was a kid but I'd never really thought of sport in political terms. My first front-bench job was in the Whip's office but I think it pretty soon became apparent to them that while others were reading Hansard, I was flicking through the sports pages or had half an eye on the television when the football was on. So here I am."

Robertson, who has twice resisted promotional offers from Cameron, says he will be happy to work with former Lib Dem sports spokesman Don Foster in the new coalition. "For me, sport should not be about political differences and it isn't just the top end of the job, 2012 and all that, which appealed to me. Sometimes when your energy levels are a bit low in Westminster and you've had a difficult day, what you really need to do is to go out and rediscover the grass roots of sport in very unpromising surroundings, meeting ordinary people who have given up every Wednesday night for the past 25 years to inspire young people to take up sport. That's what really gives me a buzz rather than turning up at Wembley, Wimbledon or Lords."

With the exit of Labour's Olympic minister Tessa Jowell, the four-person Locog board will now have an all-blue hue, but Robertson maintains it will not be the cosy Tory cartel that it may appear to be from the outside. "We will be asking forensic detailed questions about the way they are doing things to protect the Government and the greater interest. Let's face it, they have not had an entirely cosy relationship with the new mayor and it will be the same with us. There are a series of hurdles in the next two years that have to be got over and they have got over one brilliantly with the mascots, which I like very much. I think on their journey they will inspire lots of young people to take up sport and that for me is the really important thing. Nobody can escape the budgetary pressures and there are going to be some tough negotiations, but the great advantage we have is that as an incoming administration we are not coming at this blind. We have been involved in it for five years.

"My challenge as the Minister for Sport – for all sport – is that by the time I have finished in office, I want to be judged on whether we have extended the opportunities available through sport to a maximum number of people. It is all about getting more people to play sport. I know what a difference sport has made to my life and I genuinely believe it is good for everybody, whether it is a brisk walk for elderly people or toddlers learning to swim. I just want everyone to have the opportunity of taking part."

As I was leaving, around lunchtime, the chief executive of the 2018 bid, Andy Anson, was on his way in. He was carrying a shopping bag. No doubt the new sports minister for all seasons was hoping that it did not contain another hot potato.