“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.