The Conservative MP Tracey Crouch.
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Tracey Crouch: “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed not to be promoted”

The Conservative MP talks to Lucy Fisher about rebelling against the government, mindfulness and football.

“I have a secret wonkishness.” Tracey Crouch, the football-loving Conservative MP, whispers conspiratorially.

“I’m actually a passionate defender of our unwritten constitution. I also believe strongly in the role of Parliament, and freedom and transparency in Parliament.”

The MP for Chatham and Aylesford in Kent is a self-confessed tomboy with a hidden geeky side: an idiosyncratic mix that is characterstic of her personality. In Parliament too her work reveals eclectic tastes, ranging from championing women in sports to activism on mental health and alchoholism.

The daughter of a social worker, Crouch is a curious breed of Conservative. “My politics are mixed,” she laughs, “I’m very complex.”

She joined the party under John Major and describes herself as a “compassionate, One Nation Conservative”. Yet she also holds strong views on robust law and order, defends civil liberties, and while she respects Britain's armed forces, calls herself a committed pacifist.

“I think people find it difficult to place me on a spectrum. I’m Conservative through and through – cut me in half and I’m as blue as they come. But I don’t think the Labour party should have exclusive rights to care issues or matters of justice and fairness. They didn’t previously, but we’ve allowed them to.”

Crouch entered Parliament as an MP in 2010. The institution has framed her career so far: she started out as a parliamentary researcher after graduating in law from Hull in the 1990s. In between she spent five years in public affairs at multinational insurance company Aviva.

As Crouch’s political profile has risen, so has her reputation as a rebel. While she does not embrace the label, she vociferously defends her decision to vote in line with her principles, even when at odds with her party.

She voted against the badger cull, in defiance of the government, she says, because “I did something I wish I hadn’t: I read the evidence, which very plainly showed the cull wasn’t going to make any significant difference.” She proceeded to condemn the culls publicly as “barbaric and indiscriminate”.

Crouch grouses that voting against the whips entails being “seen as an evil rebel who’s trying to bring the government down. You need to have people who can think for themselves as well.”

Her other rebellions include voting against press regulation and in support of Mesolthelioma victims, and while she toed the line and voted for David Cameron's swiftly introduced Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act earlier this month, she says it made her feel “very uncomfortable”.

She is also outspoken on the EU. Clarifying her stance, she says: “I’m Eurosceptic, but not anti-European. I’m not a better-off-outer, but I do think we need reform and to make it work better for the UK.”

Crouch recommends that we become “a little more French in our attitude”, arguing that Brits need to embrace a soupçon of Gallic obstinacy. “We should stand up for what we believe in. If we don’t like some things, then we don’t do them.”

While she concedes that “the free travel and the convenience of the European Union” are seductive to voters, she argues that the UK has been damaged by a good deal of financial legislation that has originated in Brussels.

The Tory's bullishness in standing up for her beliefs and principles belies her naturally thoughtful, introspective personality.

A leading proponent of mindfulness, she explains how the Buddhism-derived technique helps her remain calm and composed in the political arena.

She explains: “You just do a meditation, but it’s not an hour on the floor with your legs crossed saying ‘Ommm’; it’s about bringing yourself into the present moment, but also about not beating yourself up.”

Fretful of appearing earnest, she insists she does not ordinarily incline towards new-age and alternative therapies.“I’ve been thrown out of yoga class for laughing. It really wasn’t me... But with this, I went along feeling cynical, and I simply left a complete convert.”

Pausing, she adds: “It was a time in my life where I needed some help to deal with some personal issues and somebody suggested mindfulness.”

Such candidness is common in conversation with Crouch. When I remark on her notable sense of honesty and openness as we chat over a latte in Portcullis House, she laughs: “I’m always told that by interviewers”.

Reflecting on why she is so transparent about her life, she muses: “I’m not a very good liar! I learnt that young and realised there’s no point in trying, because people will suss it. I don’t really want to lie about things, I was brought up not to, and to be honest and true to myself.”

She pauses again, before continuing: “I don’t want to become any less of a person because of this job. I want to look in the mirror and not regret anything I’ve said, or voted on, or shouldn’t have voted on. I think very carefully about any legislation I vote on.”

While mindfulness appeals to Crouch's spiritual side, football is her favourite physical hobby.

She has coached the same girls’ team in Kent for eight years, watching her Under 10 players blossom into young women. She admits she is less fanatical about playing herself these days, but explains that this is partially due to being ineligible for the Westminster side.

“I’m not allowed to play for the parliamentary football team because I’m a girl,” she exclaims, but concedes that since the MPs’ team is run by the Football Association, it has to follow their rules, which stipulate that players over the age of 15 must play in single sex teams.

Her interest in sport pervades her political interests. She is vice chair of the All Party Group for Women in Sport, and also sits on the Culture, Media and Sport select committee, where she admits that sport and media are of greater interest to her than culture.

Last month Crouch embarked on a fundraising mission to climb volcano Cotopaxi in Ecuador with a troop of injured British armed forces veterans. The inauspicious trip was framed by back luck: she was mugged on the first day and then had to give up the climb when her dodgy knees gave way.

She admitted that while “it was an interesting experience, I can’t say I loved it.”

“It was 17 days away, in the company of soldiers and ex-soldiers. They were inspiring, undertaking this challenge with their injuries, but they are used to sleeping on floors in tents and doing their toilet business in a hole. It was physically tough.  It wasn’t like hill walking. It was like mountaineering with crampons and ice picks, helmets and backpacks carrying four litres of water.”

Tough and sporty, Crouch gets fed up with the media portrayal of female politicians and the focus on their appearance and clothes. “I’d love to have a day where every male politician was described as X, age 42, father of three, wearing an M&S tie – I just think it’s an irrelevant fact.”

She is glad to see her female Tory colleagues promoted in the Prime Minister’s latest reshuffle earlier this month, but when asked about being passed over for a ministerial role, she admits with characteristic honesty: “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.”

“I’ve been independent-minded on various issues, or rebellious, as the whips like to call it, and I understand what the consequences of that will be,” she says. "But I’m still a human being and at the end of the day, if people tell you you’re on the verge of promotion and you don’t get promoted, it’s disappointing.”

But while she may have felt put out about failing to gain a junior role in government, her diverse set of skills and wide-ranging interests mean Crouch's ascent is far from over.

Lucy Fisher writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2013. She tweets @LOS_Fisher.

 

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Rarely has it mattered so little if Manchester United won; rarely has it been so special they did

Team's Europa League victory offers chance for sorely needed celebration of a city's spirit.

Carlo Ancelotti, the Bayern Munich manager, memorably once said that football is “the most important of the least important things”, but he was only partly right. While it is absolutely the case that a bunch of people chasing around a field is insignificant, a bunch of people chasing around a field is not really what football is about.

At a football match can you set aside the strictures that govern real life and freely scream, shout and cuddle strangers. Football tracks life with such unfailing omnipresence, garnishing the mundane with regular doses of drama and suspense; football is amazing, and even when it isn’t there’s always the possibility that it’s about to be.

Football bestows primal paroxysms of intense, transcendent ecstasy, shared both with people who mean everything and people who mean nothing. Football carves out time for people it's important to see and delivers people it becomes important to see. Football is a structure with folklore, mythology, language and symbols; being part of football is being part of something big, special, and eternal. Football is the best thing in the world when things go well, and still the best thing in the world when they don’t. There is nothing remotely like it. Nothing.

Football is about community and identity, friends and family; football is about expression and abandon, laughter and song; football is about love and pride. Football is about all the beauty in the world.

And the world is a beautiful place, even though it doesn’t always seem that way – now especially. But in the horror of terror we’ve seen amazing kindness, uplifting unity and awesome dignity which is the absolute point of everything.

In Stockholm last night, 50,000 or so people gathered for a football match, trying to find a way of celebrating all of these things. Around town before the game the atmosphere was not as boisterous as usual, but in the ground the old conviction gradually returned. The PA played Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds, an Ajax staple with lyrics not entirely appropriate: there is plenty about which to worry, and for some every little thing is never going to be alright.

But somehow the sentiment felt right and the Mancunian contingent joined in with gusto, following it up with “We’ll never die,” – a song of defiance born from the ashes of the Munich air disaster and generally aired at the end of games, often when defeat is imminent. Last night it was needed from the outset, though this time its final line – “we’ll keep the red flag flying high, coz Man United will never die" – was not about a football team but a city, a spirit, and a way of life. 

Over the course of the night, every burst of song and even the minute's silence chorused with that theme: “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”; “Manchester la la la”; “Oh Manchester is wonderful”. Sparse and simple words, layered and complex meanings.

The match itself was a curious affair. Rarely has it mattered so little whether or not United won; rarely has it been so special that they did. Manchester United do not represent or appeal to everyone in Manchester but they epitomise a similar brilliance to Manchester, brilliance which they take to the world. Brilliance like youthfulness, toughness, swagger and zest; brilliance which has been to the fore these last three days, despite it all.

Last night they drew upon their most prosaic aspects, outfighting and outrunning a willing but callow opponent to win the only trophy to have eluded them. They did not make things better, but they did bring happiness and positivity at a time when happiness and positivity needed to be brought; football is not “the most important of the least important things,” it is the least important of the most important things.

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