Hoey heading for high exposure

The political dimension: New minister will keep post in limelight but emphasis will differ from her predecessor
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AN E-MAIL flashed up yesterday in the offices of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, listing the areas of responsibility for the new Sports Minister, Kate Hoey.

They are - for the record - "sport, support for the Secretary of State on the National Lottery, Social Policy, Access and Equal Opportunities".

Identical, in fact, to the remit granted to Hoey's colourful predecessor Tony Banks, who now finds himself embracing the adventurous new position of World Cup Envoy - officially an "informal arrangement".

Hoey's opening statements upon accepting the role she has always craved on Thursday - she decried the failure to include the twin towers in Wembley's redesign, and expressed the opinion that Manchester United should be playing in the FA Cup - indicated that she will occupy the same kind of high-profile as did Banks in the job. But although the remit may be identical, the emphasis is likely to be different.

Experienced observers, both within the DMCS and the area of sporting administration, concurred yesterday with the view that Banks had come to be seen as more of a Minister for Football than a Minister for Sport.

One clear message came through on the role of the 53-year-old who once proclaimed: "My number one passion is sport, and my aim is to be the first woman minister for sport". She is going to be seen, and seen to be seen, in a wider range of sports. Athletics, in particular, will welcome the arrival of a former high jump champion as it seeks to stake its claim in the new Wembley set-up.

Banks's new position as an advocate for England's hosting of the 2006 World Cup effectively extends work he has been vigorously pursuing since his surprise appointment to the job in May 1997 ahead of the man who had laboured for Labour as Shadow Minister, Tom Pendry.

There has been criticism of him in ministerial circles for what some have seen as an excess of enthusiasm for the cause, as he has travelled extensively in Europe, the Middle East and the United States to spread the word.

And although the DMCS maintains that he has always been in favour of Manchester United playing in both the FA Cup and the Fifa world club championship if possible, Banks has been perceived as being an advocate of the FA Cup holders passing over their defence in order to strengthen England's hopes of securing the World Cup finals from Fifa.

Hoey - and the man who is her new boss in the DCMS, the Secretary of State, Chris Smith - have been unequivocal in their criticism of United's decision to pull out of the FA Cup.

In retrospect, the issue may be seen to have led to Banks's demise in the same way that Colin Moynihan, the former Olympic rowing cox, was holed beneath the waterline by his excessive zeal on behalf of Mrs Thatcher's ill-fated football membership scheme.

The diminutive Moynihan, once famously photographed with Pamella Bordes - that friend to the stars - at a black-tie party, brought a smidgeon of profile to a role that, all too often, has been filled by men in grey.

Hector Munro, Neil Macfarlane, Richard Tracey, Robert Atkins, Robert Key - where are they now? Where were they then? Even Banks's immediate predecessor, Iain Sproat, was known in some quarters as "the Invisible Man". No one could ever attach that label to the witty and loquacious East Ender, who raised the job's profile in the way that Tony Blair must have known he would when he appointed him.

Hoey is no less intriguing a character. Although she is expected to be less one-eyed about football, she is, like her predecessor, a keen supporter, although of Arsenal instead of Chelsea. ("I would rather die than go to Arsenal" - Tony Banks, Hansard, 5 May, 1994).

Miss Hoey is Euro-sceptic, pro-foxhunting - her speech in its defence won her the Spectator Award for best debater of the year - anti handgun- laws and a staunchly Protestant, Co Antrim farmer's daughter for whom morning prayers at the House of Commons are a regular and meaningful experience.

Denis Healey used to call her "this beautiful Irish girl". Neil Kinnock used to call her "Ho Ho Ho Hoey" - a reference to her easy laughter.

Whatever the official remit, two facts limit the scope of any Minister for Sport. Firstly, they do not have direct access to funds, they can merely coax and direct money in certain directions. Secondly, unlike their counterparts in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, they are not Cabinet Ministers, but responsible to the Secretary of State.

But Hoey is generally seen as a worthy, and welcome arrival in a post she has always seemed likely to fill.