Hoey's ongoing crusade for sport

She was sacked from the ministry 10 months ago but remains determined to right the wrongs
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"Oh dear," said Kate Hoey, "This isn't going to be one of those bitter-ex-minister-puts-boot-into-Blair pieces, is it?" No, we said, not if you don't want it to be. And clearly she didn't.

In fact, she didn't really want to talk much on the record at all. She did enough of that when she was sports minister, and look where it got her.

Pity, we thought, as she might have some interesting things to say, and in the end, of course, she did. After all, she may no longer be a minister, but she's still a politician.

It is nigh on 10 months since she took the phone call from Downing Street that left her devastated, and not a little tearful. "I'm sorry, Kate," said Tony Blair, "but I'm going to have to ask you to step down." Most people in sport have not forgiven him, and they certainly haven't forgotten her. Quite a few were outraged, and still are. For instance, the Prime Minister should beware of meeting an angry Audley Harrison in a dark alley.

Things have certainly changed for the 55-year-old MP for Vauxhall. The last time we had a meal together she was driven in the ministerial Rover. This time she turned up in her own W-reg Mini, fretting in the restaurant because she feared she had parked outside a few minutes before it was lawful to do so.

We met at Jack's Place, a popular eaterie in Battersea just south of her London constituency, run by ex-boxer Jack Talkington, who fought in the Jack Solomons era under the name of Jack King. He was a middleweight then, but he's a 73-year-old heavyweight now, famed for serving up portions as ample as his girth.

As she tucked into her steak and chips it was good to see Hoey had not lost her appetite for sport, either, as she happily chatted away with the proprietor about the fight game. That was always the great thing about her when she was minister. Sports people felt comfortable in her company. She made friends in all walks of sport and was arguably the most popular and successful in the job since her mentor, Denis Howell.

Last year was a wretched one for her. Her father died, her long-term relationship broke up and Blair booted her out.

As far as her sacking is concerned, it's water under the bridge, she says. Or Stamford Bridge, perhaps, as it seemed largely engineered by her most spiteful adversary, Ken Bates, and his football cronies.

This was the first real interview she had given, albeit reluctantly, since the one a few days after her dismissal in which she revealed a fistful of unpleasant home truths about a football-fixated Government and its depressing attitude towards sport. "Hell hath no fury like a woman sports minister scorned," some sniffed. Not so, says Hoey.

"Yes, I was hurt at the time. But what upset me most was not on the personal front. I'd enjoyed the job enormously and thought I was doing reasonably well, despite the low level of priority that all governments give to sport.

"I just felt that sport itself would think, 'Oh no, here we go again. Yet another sports minister'. I think people in sport were rather hoping it would be quite nice if they had someone who was going to stay around for some time. For me, being sports minister was never just a job. It was more than that. Maybe a lot of politics is no longer for people who are passionate and want to change things, but more for people who are simply going through the motions.

"I suppose on reflection I was too honest, and politicians aren't meant to be honest, are they? But there's no point in dwelling on the past." Now, she says, she's getting on with her life. "I'm actually enjoying just being an MP again. I have a busy constituency and there's so much to do." Happily, though, she is not lost to the game. She's been writing a pungent sports column for the Guardian, which is about to transfer to the Telegraph. Not an a indication of any disaffection with New Labour, she insists, simply the opportunity for a wider audience. There have also been well-received documentaries for BBC and Channel 4. She is still regularly invited to sports events, though she makes it clear she will not attend any function which might seem to be treading on the toes of her successor, Richard Caborn, whom she describes as "an affable bloke". She has been given standing ovations at athletics and hockey awards dinners, and was moved to tears by the reception accorded her at the world modern pentathlon championships.

Her continuing popularity apparently gets up the noses of sport's deeply unimpressive Whitehall mandarins, as does her media platform, which allows her to take a more objective, analytical look at sport's ongoing mistreatment.

Even now she gets letters from organisations asking for her help, notably the playing fields people, whose cause she has always championed, much to the annoyance of civil servants whom, when she was minister, told her she shouldn't get involved. Her reply was: "What's the point of being sports minister if I don't?" Too fiesty ever to be a Blair babe, she seems reconciled to spending the rest of her political career on the back benches.

But if the Government could swallow its prejudices and offer her, say, the soon-to-be-vacant chair at Sport England, a job for which she is eminently suited, would she accept it? "Not under the present structure. Jobs like that have status but no real power." Like being sports minister.

And what if Blair admitted he had made a terrible ricket and offered Hoey her old job back? "You can't go back, you have to move on and find other ways of contributing. I hope that's what I'm doing now in different ways." As she scooped up her papers to dash for a TV date on BBC's Despatch Box she said she had almost forgotten to mention that she will be captaining the House of Commons swimming team against Sebastian Coe's lordly splashers in a gala for Northern Ireland charities at Hurlingham in July. Back in the swim, then? Actually, she's never really been out of it.

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