Tony Banks: his feeling for sport was instinctive

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The Independent Online

One of the reasons why so many journalists warmed to Tony Banks, the former Sports Minister who died last night, was because, just like them, he couldn't resist a good line.

Despite the subliminal suggestion of his surname, the man was always anything but the safe option. And it was a measure of the freshness and idealism of the first New Labour government that such a magnificently off-message political figure should be appointed as Sports Minister in the wake of the landslide election of 1997.

Typically, when the call came from Tony Blair, this man of the people was cooking for a TV food show and his first thought was that the whole thing was a wind-up by his friend Rory Bremner.

"It was just as well I didn't say something like '**** off, Rory'," he recalled later. "Because that wouldn't have gone down too well."

Banks admitted that he had been surprised to earn the call, especially as he had not figured in any Shadow Cabinet. What the member for Newham North West had done during the long years of Tory dominance, however, was to establish himself as a formidable sniper from the Opposition benches, where he performed the role of the cheeky boy at the back of the classroom.

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 in the Houses of Commons.

Whatever the subsequent frustrations of his efforts in the sporting domain, Banks achieved more than a legion of his predecessors simply by being noticed.

A longstanding Chelsea season-ticket holder, his feeling for sport was instinctive and genuine, and even before taking up his ministerial position he had been a dogged defender of disabled sportsmen and women. 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.

Banks always abhorred blood sports, and he was also among those who lobbied for the Grand National to reduce the size of its fences. He deplored the outcry over Britain's lack of success at the 1996 Olympics, questioning how much support many of the competitors had had from their country.

"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," he said. "Not when they're famous and they've done it all thanks largely to themselves."

Not surprisingly, one of his main tasks as sports minister was to oversee the first workings of the National Lottery funding which now underwrites the efforts of so many British sporting protagonists.

Banks also added his weight to attempts to banish doping from sport. In 1999, he appeared at the World Conference on Doping in Sport at Lausanne and joined those demanding the setting up of a genuinely independent dope-testing agency. "The reputation of the International Olympic Committee is once again on the line, and we expect it to clean up its act," Banks told an audience that included the then IOC president, Juan-Antonio Samaranch, who was sitting no more than 10 feet away.

In recent years, that has come to pass with the emergence of the World Anti-Doping Authority.

But Banks, one of nature's dissenters, never seemed entirely comfortable as a bulwark of government, and resigned in 1999 to help promote England's doomed quest to stage the 2006 World Cup.

His most recent badge of honour was an impassioned contribution to the recent Hunting Bill debate, where he spoke eloquently in support of animal welfare. That conviction also animated a long-running opposition to Ken Livingstone's policy of eradicating the pigeons from Trafalgar Square.

Who knows, had the man who once advocated that darts become an Olympic sport remained in office, we might have witnessed a campaign to add pigeon racing to the Games...