The Evening Standard

With Hugh Robertson

Come 6 May Hugh Robertson will be wrestling with two big questions: will his Conservative party win the election and will he avoid the fate of Tom Pendry?

Labour politician Pendry shadowed sports for most of his party’s 18 years in exile and thought he had an inside line to Tony Blair, having introduced him to the Commons.

Yet, in May 1997, as that bright new Labour dawn broke, he sat by his phone in vain. The job went to Tony Banks and Blair tried to console Pendry by making him a Lord but he never forgave the former Prime Minister.

Robertson, the Conservative shadow minister for sport and Olympics, and I are sipping coffee in one of the hotels at the entrance to Stamford Bridge and he smiles as he recalls how Banks was so unexpectedly handed his position.

“Tom Pendry is a cautionary tale,” he tells me. “But if we form a government, as I hope we do, I expect an early call from the Prime Minister.”

The reasons, says the 47-year-old Faversham and Mid-Kent MP, is 2012. Sport will have a huge influence on the country when the Olympics take place in London in two years and Robertson is certain no one else has been better prepared for the job.

“Sport in conjunction with the Olympics has a higher profile than it has ever had,” he says. “I have gone round and spoken to people in sports and I shall come to office with a much firmer view of what is important and what isn’t.”

We are meeting as reports are suggesting that Labour could make an election promise to offer supporters a 25 per cent stake in their clubs.

Such a policy would be very promising to most football fans and it marks clear water between the parties but Robertson dismisses it as a gimmick.

“Labour had 13 years to sort this out,” he argues. “They make these encouraging noises to the fans because they think there is political advantage in doing that. Labour has done that on a number of occasions in the past.”

For Chelsea supporter Robertson the real issue is how the game is currently run in this country.

Under the Tories football will only have a few months to sort its house out.

“The national game needs to deal with four issues,” Robertson says. “The fit and proper person test for club owners; transparency so that people looking at football clubs can see exactly what’s going on; the whole question of debt as a percentage of turnover, and governance. There are far too few people that sit on football boards, either in clubs or the organisations, that act independently. Most are part of the game’s vested interests.

“If, by the end of the summer the Football Association, the Premier League and the Football League have not come up with a proper plan to address these four issues, then the Government will have to step in. One of the options would be an independent regulator to run the game.”

The issue has acquired greater urgency for Robertson following the sudden resignation two weeks ago of Ian Watmore, the FA’s chief executive. Days before that the pair dined at the Commons and Watmore told Robertson that he hoped “to bring something really concrete to the next Government” within a couple of months.

The Tory is sure Watmore’s exit from the FA was not, as has been suggested, because he fell out with the chief executive of the Premier League, Richard Scudamore. “Watmore told me he was working closely with Richard and I saw Richard the afternoon that Watmore resigned,” Robertson reveals.

“Richard made a point of saying how well they had been working together. I think it was the vested interests on the FA board that caused Watmore to resign. But the very fact that this unusually gifted individual needed to go tells you that there is something badly wrong with the structure of English football.”

Politicians have often spoken about appointing a regulator to run the game, but generally when they were backbenchers with no power to implement the idea.

Gerry Sutcliffe, Labour’s sports minister, did so when he was on the backbenches but with the chances that Robertson could be sports minister within a month, the prospect of a regulator may not be mere talk this time.

The background for change could not be bleaker. “The Government is in danger of steering sport into a perfect spending storm,” he warns.

“No matter who is elected in May the amount of exchequer funding for sport is going to be cut.

“It is difficult to get to the bottom of the figure but people are talking of cuts of between 10 and 20 per cent.”

In the present economic climate such cuts are inevitable but Robertson argues that the current Government is making it worse. He explains: “Its review of listed events carried out by David Davies threatens to take away from sports quite a lot of broadcast revenue and the recent Ofcom review threatens to hit the way Sky packages its rights. This could make it very challenging for sport.”

Robertson is aware that his favourite sport, cricket, has claimed that, if it is forced off Sky, it will cost the game £137million over four years.

“We shall have a rigorous economic review of the impact of the Davies’ proposals but we favour a shorter A list of sports that are on free to air and a return to the B list showing highlights packages on terrestrial television,” Robertson says.

However, the really big Conservative answer to the cuts is a return to the basics of John Major’s Lottery plans. “That will be the first key change on day one, week one,” promises Robertson. “Return the National Lottery to the four original beneficiaries: sports, arts, heritage and charities and reclaim some of the money lost to sports.”

Labour added a fifth stream, originally the Millennium Commission, who have since developed into a number of other causes.

Sport’s share has dropped from the original 20 per cent to just over 13 per cent. In 2007-2008 terms, sport got £461m, last year it had fallen to £217m.The Conservatives believe this proposal shows they are doing something meaningful for sport and they feel the Lottery has changed the face of sport.

The Thatcher Government was hardly noted for its love for sports. Much as Denis Thatcher loved golf and rugby, the Iron Lady refused personally to intervene to help Manchester’s bid for the Olympics in 1989.

But, as I remind Robertson of this, for the first time he becomes a touch defensive. “It is lovely to have a conversation about Margaret Thatcher but when she was PM I was at school so this is an episode from history,” he says.

“And whatever you may say about the Thatcher Government, the Major administration introduced the lottery which is arguably the single biggest beneficial change to British sport in recent times.”

Restoring the original share of the Lottery to sport will also, argues Robertson, address “the biggest missing piece of the London Olympics: to create a legacy of mass participation in sport. We have not delivered on this”.

A Conservative task force headed by Dame Kelly Holmes has identified three areas which require attention: facilities, coaches and volunteers.

The Tories plan to inject money to improve facilities and coaches and to reduce the regulatory burden on volunteers who help in sports clubs.

With Robertson combining both sport and Olympics, whereas the jobs are split under Labour, the Tories are also convinced their approach will be more joined up.

The Conservatives plan further sports surgery bringing UK Sport, Youth Sport Trust and Sport England under one roof and one chairman in a new body likely to be called the National Institute of Sport. But this will not be done until after 2012.

By then, Robertson hopes England will have won the right to stage the 2018 World Cup. A week after the election, the bid book will be delivered to FIFA. “Winning the 2018 bid,” insists Robertson, “is the single most important challenge facing whoever wins the election.”

But can David Cameron, the man who sees himself as the heir to Blair, succeed in matching Blair’s 2012 triumph in Singapore?

“David Cameron will do for 2018 what Tony Blair did for 2012 Olympics,” promises Robertson. “As with 2012, it will not be an easy bid to win. The Russians are coming strong at it. It requires the same attention to detail, the full support of the Government and, if I am Sports Minister, it will get that.”

Before that decision there is the little matter of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and I sketch out the possibility that, come the end of the year, England could have won the World Cup, Andy Murray lifted the Wimbledon title and England retained the Ashes in Australia. “Absolutely fantastic,” Robertson replies.

But, even as he purrs in delight, the politician in Robertson kicks in.

“The key thing is not winning trophies but extending the opportunities available through sport,” he says. “The job of a Sports Minister above all else is to nurture and foster the grass roots so that we have more and more people playing sport in this country.”

This may be just a politician’s sound bite but Robertson can claim to be part of a vanishing political breed. In the new parliament only half a dozen of the 650 MPs will have had an Army background like Robertson, a sea change from a Commons that used to be full of the ex-military men.

Roberston’s life is a story of the British army at work: early 20s on the Bogside in Londonderry, adjutant to one of the tank regiments during the Gulf war, on the green line between the Turks and the Greeks in Cyprus and, finally, commanding the British attachment in Sarajevo during the siege of the city in 1994.

In Sarajevo he can recall looking at Serbian gun placements who targeted trams at the main crossroads.

“It was an extraordinarily grisly time but it has made me the man I am,” he says. “Training for an army active service tour gives you a sort of basic understanding of what an elite athlete goes through.

“But it has also given me, possibly, a sense of perspective that eludes some people who have just come up through the political system. I think that probably makes me very different to many other politicians and certainly other sports ministers.”

However, before he can prove how different he is, the electorate must vote for his party and David Cameron resist the temptation to make him the Conservative Tom Pendry.


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