London 2012: 'Olympics need a full-time minister'

Tory shadow turns screw on Government as he calls for transparency over rising Games costs
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The Independent Online

Parliament resumes this week amid mounting speculation that it could herald the last throw of the dice for casino queen Tessa Jowell as the Olympics minister and for 63-year-old Richard Caborn, who next month will become the longest-serving sports minister since Denis Howell. The prevailing feeling on both sides of the House, as well as in sport, seems to be that the Jowell-Caborn axis has spun its course, particularly as their tenure is being made increasingly uncomfortable by the dapper former Army major who is forging a formidable reputation not so much as a political adversary but as a politician with his finger on the pulse of sport from the grass roots upwards.

Should there be regime change at the next election then the slim figure of Hugh Robertson, 44, currently Opposition spokesman for the Olympics and sport, is set to be the political torchbearer through to 2012. The fact that he is a genuine sports enthusiast can be gauged from the fact that when David Cameron was assembling his front-bench team, Robertson was approached about a possible Shadow Cabinet job but said he preferred to stay with his present portfolio.

Now the MP for Faversham begins the new parliamentary session by turning the screws on the Government to own up over the spiralling costs of the Olympics, of which he is an ardent supporter. He says: "They should have been more honest earlier about the sums involved. There was a window after Singapore when they could have said, 'Look, we didn't expect to win this - which is the brutal truth - and we now need to review things and bring in a new budget'. Instead they have spent eight months swearing blind in Hansard that the budget was robust and deliverable.

"This has landed them in an awful lot of trouble. Their refusal to sort it out and come clean has led to a series of stories that are immensely damaging to the Games. They must come up with a transparent budget as soon as possible and tell us exactly what the Games will cost and what the country will get in return.

"The problem is, with a change of Labour leadership ahead, you wonder how much influence Tessa Jowell has at the Treasury and whether the Olympics are suffering because of it. She has too much on her plate. The Olympics need a full-time minister. Actually, I like both her and Dick Caborn. He cares about sport but I think he's been doing the job a bit too long, as witnessed by his gaffe recently over sport and recreational drugs. You get the feeling that they are both past their sell-by date."

Under Thatcher and Major the Tories had a miserable procession of sports ministers (with the honourable exception of Colin Moynihan, who got cuffed by The Handbag), who came and went with the ineptitude of England's Ashes tail-enders. At last they have found someone who, if called into bat before the 2012 Olympics, will give it a decent knock. Even some Labour MPs seem to think so, among them the former sports minister Kate Hoey, who says Robertson is someone sport could do business with.

"He is genuinely interested in getting a better deal for sport and knows that it is the bureaucracy that is holding things back. He is a thoroughly decent person and someone I would be happy to see as sports minister should there be a change of government."

Yet this headmaster's son from Canterbury (a Sandhurst graduate and Life Guards officer who commanded the Household Cavalry on the Queen's Birthday Parade, served in the Gulf, Bosnia and Northern Ireland, is a member of MCC who plays club cricket and hockey, represented his regiment at rugby and supports Chelsea) has all the trimmings of a Tory toff. Not so. He mixes well with sports people and has already proved more than capable of giving the Government a good kicking.

Have the Government sold sport short? "A good question," he says. "They deserve credit, notably for backing the Olympic bid, and I think they have tried to get school sports going again, but have gone about it the wrong way. In the debit column is the over-bureaucratisation and party politicising of sport.

"It is scandalous that you have to be a Labour Party member, donor or adviser to obtain chairmanship of the quangos. I believe they have abjectly let down sport at community level with the Lottery reforms, and the organisation that has failed most in the decades of the Lottery is Sport England. Its mission was to increase mass participation, and it simply hasn't. This is deeply shaming.

"I know what a difference sport has made to my life and I genuinely believe it is good for everybody, whether it is a brisk walk for people of my parents' age or toddlers learning to swim. I just want everyone to have the opportunity of taking part."