Tory Boy tries to be Action Man

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The Independent Online
THE CONSERVATIVES are coming out to play. A new game plan to win over Britain's sporting community, giving the party leader, William Hague, an "Action Man" image and identifying him with the nation's passion for sport, is seen as a potential vote-catcher.

Mr Hague will captain Team Tory at a special sports summit at Loughborough University on 18 February. Invitations are being sent to more than 200 leading sports figures and administrators as part of the party's "Listening to Britain" campaign. Mr Hague will tell them that he believes sport has an increasingly vital role to play in Britain's social and economic well- being.

Since being routed in the 1997 general election, the Tories have been confined to the touchline, watching Tony Blair and voluble sports minister Tony Banks running with the ball. Now they believe it is time to go on the attack themselves. In recent weeks Peter Lilley, the deputy leader, and other senior Tory figures have sought advice from various sporting figures on how to get back into the game.

A driving force behind the "sportification" of the party is double Olympic athletics champion Sebastian Coe, the former Tory MP for Falmouth, who is now personal aide, fitness guru and judo partner to Mr Hague.

Ironically, the new tactics were formulated in the Margaret Thatcher room at Central Office, beneath the stern portrait of a former prime minister who was about as enamoured with sport as she was with society. This was reflected in her appointment of a long line of lame-duck sports ministers, but now, according to Mr Coe, the Tories are determined to start scoring. And they see Mr Hague as their Alan Shearer.

Until now, and unlike his predecessor, John Major, Mr Hague has not been noted for his sporting affections - apart from a penchant for wearing a baseball cap. But, Mr Coe insists, the leader is not in need of a sporting make-over. He claims that Mr Hague is the fittest member of Parliament by "a distance", working out twice a week in the House of Commons gymnasium.

Since taking up judo a year ago, Mr Hague has progressed from the novice stage to become a green belt, under the tuition of former Olympic silver medallist Ray Stevens. He is also a proficient cross-country skier. "Unlike some politicians, William doesn't flaunt his sporting passions," said Mr Coe. "But he is an avid follower of sport generally and has a great knowledge of American sports, and he watches rugby, cricket and football. In fact he once said that as someone who supports Wales at rugby - because of his wife - Yorkshire at cricket and Rotherham at football, he found the outcome of the election a mere irritant."

So will the great and the good at the Tory sportsfest be treated to the sight of Iron Bill Hague shadow boxing out of the blue corner? It is unlikely even though he is rumoured to be descended from the Yorkshire-born British heavyweight champion (circa 1909) of the same name. Nor will there be photo opportunities at Stamford Bridge with Mr Hague in a Chelsea shirt cheering alongside celebrity supporters David Mellor and John Major.

"This is exactly the image we don't want," said Peter Ainsworth, the shadow secretary for Culture, Media and Sport. "We want people to know that William has a genuine feeling for sport, from the grassroots upwards, and is not just a nouveau fan who has climbed on the bandwagon."

The Tories say they will use the Loughborough meeting, to be hosted by BBC presenter John Inverdale, as an apolitical platform. "We want to get ideas and input from across the board," said Mr Ainsworth. It will also be an opportunity to familiarise the sporting fraternity with Mr Ainsworth, 42, an MCC member and son of a former Worcestershire county cricketer, and one-time junior tennis champion Richard Spring, who plays opposite Tony Banks in the Commons as Tory sport spokesman.

They acknowledge that Mr Banks is popular in sport despite some of his infamous gaffes, but believe cracks are beginning to show. "There's no way we want to emulate him; he's a one-off" said Mr Ainsworth. "But the fact is he's not delivering because he's not getting support from his departmental head, Chris Smith, and he's being snubbed by other departments."

Like Mr Banks, Mr Spring is an eyebrow-raising choice as a sports spokesman, though events in his past suggest he might well find accord with some of the more laddish elements of the locker room. Four years ago the 52- year-old divorcee was dubbed "Three-in-a-Bed-Spring" following newspaper allegations of a sex romp with a business friend and a female Sunday school teacher. He subsequently resigned as parliamentary private secretary to the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew.

His political rehabilitation has been encouraged by Mr Coe, who was himself tipped as a future sports minister before the loss of his parliamentary seat at the General Election.

Mr Spring claims that Mr Banks is "all mouth and no action". "His rhetoric is not being translated into reality. The Sports Institute is in a mess and we have declining levels of participation in sport and fitness.

"This is one reason why we are determined to raise our own profile as a party which cares about sport and recognises its importance to the country both socially and economically. It is a major income generator.

"Next month's meeting will be a watershed, which will help us develop our own sports policy and point out some of the fundamental mistakes that this government is making."

Lottery funding, school sports, tobacco sponsorship, drugs and ethics are among the topics the Tories would like to debate next month. Gambling is not on the agenda, but if Mr Hague wants to show that he really is a good sport, he could put a modest wager on himself to avoid the fate of so many team managers - the sack. At the moment, the bookies are offering 6-4 that he won't survive the year.

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