Minister for Sport finds his office: 'It's like a cell'

Tony Banks, the man the PM failed to gag, on the joys and otherwise of his first day at work
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The Independent Online
The chauffeur-driven limousine drew up outside the colonnaded entrance to the Department of National Heritage. The back door opened, and a jaunty figure in jeans and Doc Martens jumped out. The new Minister for Sport had arrived for his first day at work.

Tony Banks was an hour late, having dropped in at Upton Park, West Ham's football ground, for a photo-call. The delay gave his civil servants the jitters, given his admission in a radio interview earlier in the day that he had no idea where his new office was located.

For Mr Banks, a maverick left-winger, the job offer was a bolt from the blue. But the job itself could not have better suited the MP for Newham North East, a fanatical Chelsea supporter. "It's like going to heaven without dying," he said.

The Department of National Heritage was not quite sure what had hit it yesterday. Officials were waiting all morning to escort their new minister to meetings with Chris Smith, the Secretary of State. But when Mr Banks finally turned up at 2pm, he brushed them aside. Flouting the edict by Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, that interviews with ministers must be approved by him, he took off to the nearby Sports Cafe for an impromptu press conference.

Perched at a table, swigging on a bottle of Rolling Rock beer, he pronounced on life, politics and football. Wembley Stadium was "crap", he declared. Despite his elevated station, Mr Banks has no plans to tone himself down. "I've not been made Foreign Secretary, where diplomatic language is essential," he said. "I shall be using the language of sport, which does get colourful from time to time."

The men from the ministry were getting restless. It was time for Mr Banks to get acquainted with his workplace. He entered the building. "Posh, innit?" he observed, looking round at the mirrored foyer with its pot plants and waterfalls.

By the time he reached his office, a spartan room with net curtains, he had recovered his sang-froid. "God, this is a bit rudimentary, isn't it? It's like a prison cell. I don't think much of the trappings of office so far." Glancing down, he added: "Nothing in the out tray, nothing in the urgent tray, nothing in the pending tray, just the way it should be."

Mr Banks's new job will present him with some difficult conundrums. What if a Council of Ministers meeting should fall on 17 May, when Chelsea meets Middlesbrough in the FA Cup Final? "You must be joking. Nothing would stop me going to the Cup Final unless I was dead. And if I was dead I'd want my ashes taken there."