Banks promises change of climate

A Chelsea fan who has already expressed a dim view of Wembley is likely to prove a lively Minister for Sport. Mike Rowbottom met him
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The Independent Online
The new Minister for Sport, Tony Banks, will of course be at Wembley next Saturday to see his beloved Chelsea. But he has turned down his invitation to watch the FA Cup final from the Royal Box.

The politician who described himself as "gobsmacked" at being offered his present post will feel more comfortable among fellow Chelsea followers on their big Wembley day.

As a season ticket holder, he had already acquired his ticket through the usual method of queueing. He subsequently accepted an invitation to be the club's guest, and passed his ticket on to another Chelsea supporter. But when the Department offered him a seat in the Royal Box, he declined.

"The idea of throwing my arms around the Queen when Chelsea score, or screaming 'the referee's a wanker' which I'm likely to do, probably would not go down too well in the Royal Box," Banks said yesterday. "I will also be wearing one of those big floppy-top hats and my scarf and rosette. When I'm at football, you know, I like to hug the people that are around me, we jump up and down and we dance. I'm not going to have my enjoyment of one of the great days of my club spoiled by being next to Royalty of no fixed abode."

The style is the man. Like a perennial wit at the back of the classroom, the 54-year-old member for Newham North West has harried and sniped from the Opposition benches, often to spectacular effect. His description of the bulky former Defence Secretary Nicholas Soames as "his own personal food mountain", and his characterisation of the former Transport Secretary Steven Norris as "the Government's most proficient bullshitter" are but two of the verbal initiatives to have earned him rebukes within the House of Commons.

Many other barbs have been delivered on television, where Banks has become an amiably waspish, summonable presence over the years. Indeed, he was cooking for a TV food show when the call came from Tony Blair offering him his current post.

His first thought was that the call was from his friend Rory Bremner winding him up. "I wasn't a Shadow Minister," Banks said. "I hadn't done anything to try and become anything. I hadn't modified my behaviour or my public statements. And it's probably not a good time to remind the Prime Minister that I backed Margaret Beckett for the leadership of the party.

"It flashed through my mind that Rory might be taking the piss. It was just as well I didn't say something like, 'Fuck off, Rory.' Because that wouldn't have gone down too well."

Perhaps not. But perhaps. Because, as Banks himself acknowledges, the Prime Minister picked him - rather than the expectant Shadow Minister, Tom Pendry - precisely for his, what shall we say, vibrancy.

"The message that I got is that that is exactly what he does want," Banks said. "I suppose in a way he thinks you can be colourful and you can get things done and you can't actually do much damage. I mean, I'm not likely to end up plunging the country into war."

Leaning back in his chair at the Department of National Heritage, a tie and waistcoat gentrifying his black denim trousers, he leafed through the latest copy of the Big Issue. "You can't get rid of all homelessness, Mr Blair ..." read the front page message, continuing inside: "But you can have a damn good try." These are heady, challenging times for the new men and women of Labour, Banks included.

"There's no doubt about it, it's scary," he said. "We spent 18 years telling the Tories where they got it completely wrong. Now it's our turn to take action. The Prime Minister made it quite clear throughout the whole election campaign that we weren't going to promise anything other than that which we could deliver. But the size of the vote we received will have excited enormous extra expectation. You can almost reach out and touch the atmosphere at the moment. There's a great feeling of relief in the country, a great feeling that a breath of fresh air has blow through."

Fittingly, the man who describes himself not as Old, or New, but "Vintage Labour" is now talking about creating a different climate in sport, although he steers clear of specific policy discussions on the understandable grounds that he is still getting to grips with a job he never envisaged.

For all that, the contrast with his predecessor, Iain Sproat, could hardly be more marked. Sproat, variously known as "Deep Sproat", "No-throat Sproat" and the "Invisible Man", resisted invitations to air his views in the media for almost two months after his appointment. He was, journalists were told, "not ready."

Banks has already commanded more attention in a week than most of his predecessors managed in a career. But for all his noise, he is no empty vessel. He has been a dogged defender of the rights of disabled people. As chairman of arts and recreation for the General London Council, he championed the rights of wheelchair competitors to take part in the London Marathon, a move which met with considerable resistance.

His abhorrence of blood sports is well known, and he is sensitive to other potential risks to animal welfare. He was among those who lobbied for the Grand National to reduce the size of its fences, and there have been some anxious noises among the National Hunt fraternity since his arrival at Cockspur Street.

He felt the outcry over Britain's lack of success at last summer's Olympics was disproportionate. "It's very easy for people sitting in front of their televisions to start whingeing on about athletes not winning as many medals as we would have wanted. One of the things that has always intrigued me is that we suddenly hear that Linford Christie has won a medal for Britain. I think you need to ask the question, what's Britain done for Linford Christie?

"If you want to take national pride, as we do, in the achievements of our sports men and women, you've got to be prepared to invest in them. Not when they're famous and they've done it all thanks largely to themselves. But what are we doing now, today, to create the stars of tomorrow?"

Prioritisation, however, will be the name of the game.

"Gordon Brown has made it quite clear that there is not much point in sending a pantechnicon up to the Treasury expecting him to load it up with tenners. It isn't going to work like that so we are going to have to be imaginative in the way we allocate our resources."

Banks is intent upon becoming what he describes as "an honest broker, a catalyst, an enabler", and plans to sit down with what he describes as "the iconoclasts" within different sports in this country to discover whether policies can be improved.

Among the Labour pledges Banks is committed to carrying through are an end to the sale of playing fields, the creation of a youth unit within the sports ministry, and using Lottery money to create after-school sports clubs.

The immediate topics to which he is turning his mind alongside the Secretary of State, Chris Smith, are altering the distribution of funds from the National Lottery and evaluating the establishment of a National Academy of Sport. Later this month the Heritage Dream Ticket - alias Smith and Banks - will visit the three shortlisted sites for the Academy at Upper Heyford, Sheffield and Nottingham.

The question of restoring competitive games at schools, a matter which greatly exercised his predecessor, is one which generates as much heat in Banks, although for different reasons.

He resists any invitation to have a pop at boxing, one of Sproat's pet sports. "I boxed at school," he said. "I enjoy boxing, although I don't like it when it gets gory. But seeing 'Prince' Naseem box, seeing his movement in that, it's almost like poetry."

But when he contemplates the idea of competitive sports as such, he becomes less lyrical. "It's almost as if it was an ideological thing with the Conservatives, because competition for them is a buzzword, and its a buzzword as far as they were concerned in the economy as much as it was in sport. I am not ideological in my sporting approach. But the idea that the only sports worth encouraging are competitive sports, you know ..." The Department aide at Banks's right hand flinches momentarily in anticipation ... "is bollocks. It's ideological bollocks. And I hope that you ain't going to see much ideological bollocks around here.

"That's the thing that prepares people so they can go off and start cutting people's throats on the stock market, which, putting it crudely, is the way the simple minds of some of the previous Conservative politicians operate.

"Anyway," he added with a grin. "You shouldn't have got me going on that one. Touch the button and I'm off."

But it is, and will be, such fun to hear the new Sports Minister warming to his rhetorical theme in the next few years. Eighteen years of hurt haven't stopped him dreaming - or protesting.