Minister Hugh Robertson on a successful Olympics

Sports and Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson, MP for Faversham and Mid-Kent, on delivering a successful Olympics and why Kent is more important to him than Westminster...


Sports and Olympics Minister Hugh Robertson, MP for Faversham and Mid-Kent, on delivering a successful Olympics and why Kent is more important to him than Westminster.

It was a dark and stormy night back in April 2000. His first night of canvassing in democratic elections and Hugh Robertson was literally, and metaphorically, wet behind the ears. But the prospective Parliamentary candidate (Con) for Faversham and Mid-Kent embarked on the mission with typical enthusiasm. Despite the tipping rain and getting “absolutely soaked” he knocked on this particular door in Faversham.

It opened very slowly and he found himself being examined with high suspicion by an elderly gentleman behind the door. Robertson immediately went into his familiar spiel.

“Hello, I’m your local Conservative Party Candidate and I’m....etc.” “Hmmm,” said the unimpressed householder. “D’you come from round here?” “Ah, yes I do actually,” said the candidate cheerfully, thinking ‘I’ve got him now’. He added for good measure: “I was born and brought up in Canterbury.”The suspicious eyes narrowed suddenly. “Ah, over the hill,” said his inquisitor, and firmly shut the door.

“That is absolutely true. One hundred per cent.It just goes to show that all politics is local.” Faversham’s now incumbent MP is talking in a pub in Lenham after his weekly surgery.

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No longer the prospective party candidate, but the real thing, elected to Parliament in June 2001 and currently serving the government and ourselves as the Sports Minister. It’s a fine time to occupy such a berth, with the London Olympics just over a year away, and Robertson is a rarity among a long litany of such Ministers – he actually knows something about sport.

A very keen hockey player who represented Britain in the army and continues to play for the cross-party Parliamentary team, he is also a horseman, a former Commander of the Lifeguards Mounted squadron who led the Household Cavalry at the Queen’s Birthday Celebrations and the State Opening of Parliament in 1993.

That is quite a CV among our MPs who frequently graduate from the university debating society to the green cushions of the chamber in the House of Commons with not much else in between. Robertson had three wars in between, among other things.

He saw active service in Northern Ireland commanding a platoon in Londonderry and Fermanagh, during the Gulf War he was Adjutant of a main battle tank regiment and in Bosnia he commanded a British Detachment in Sarajevo during the siege of the city.

He is probably unique in two areas. One, he is almost certainly the only MP who has arrested the brother of a fellow MP (albeit one practising absenteeism from Westminster). During his posting to Northern Ireland he took Willy McGuinness into custody, younger brother of Martin McGuinness, currently the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland.

Two, he is also almost certainly the only MP who has sat on a horse (called Lawrence) outside the State Opening of Parliament and subsequently sat on a bench inside Parliament on a similar occasion.

Clearly, the Member of Parliament for Faversham and Mid Kent is a rounded character, unafraid to take on new commitments.

“I was just back from the Gulf War in my late twenties when I was sent a new commission to command the Mounted Squadron at Hyde Park Barracks. The one problem – bearing in mind I’d be responsible for 100 men and 125 horses – was that I didn’t know how to ride. So the army sent me to somewhere called the Defence Animal Centre in Melton Mowbray and I’m pretty sure I remain to this day the only officer who’s done that course and fallen off twice during the assessment ride.”

Horses are well known to instil humility in their handlers and it may be significant Robertson’s name did not surface during the parliamentary expenses scandal. Nor is he characterised as nakedly ambitious. Even the MP for Vauxhall from the other side (Labour) Kate Hoey praises him as “the best minister of sport since me” (she had the role 1999-2001).

“I don’t think it is a pre-requisite for an MP to be nasty,” says Robertson. “I believe that if I treat people decently, they will treat me decently in return. As for ambitions, I have two, in my ministerial role. I’d like to help deliver a successful Olympics in 2012 and use the occasion to inspire more people into sport.

“Beyond that, here in Kent I want to be remembered as an MP who looked after his constituents. I came into politics because I was born and bred in this county and wanted to make a contribution to life down here. The Kent link is very important to me. My family have lived in Kent for as long as I can remember. It is more important to me than Westminster.”

So no intention of being Prime Minister one day?

“I think not,” he says. “You never quite know what’s going to happen in the future, but I think it’s unlikely.”

His connections with the county indeed run deep. He was born in Canterbury Hospital and christened in Canterbury Cathedral. His father was a headmaster in the county and his mother helped run the same Prep School. He played his club hockey in Kent – and still does, for Sutton Valence.

He married his wife, Anna, in Kent in 2002 and swiftly adapted from disciplines of army life to the subtleties of domestic life. “I knew enough, for instance, about marriage not to say I’d seen the ‘the most marvellous house’ when I thought I’d found our new home in Sutton Valence. I left it to Anna and it turned out to be the right thing to do.”

It has been a steep learning curve and in the course of his parliamentary career Robertson has also discovered the single greatest fear for all MPs in rural constituencies. “Dogs are a nightmare,” he says, meaning (before there is an outcry) those random attackers for whom a new calf muscle to gnaw upon is always welcome.

He illustrates the concept with another canvassing story, this time during the national election in 2005. “I came to a smart house and walked up to the garden gate. I knew better than to stroll through without checking. I rattled the gates, just to make sure they was no guard dog on patrol, and thankfully nothing happened. “All clear – so I thought. I went through the gate and was halfway up the path when a white West Highland terrier appeared. It took one look at me, bared its teeth and charged. Braver people than me would have seen it off. I just legged it. I jumped over the side of the gate, but realising that it had been left it ajar, I snapped it shut with considerable force and unfortunately lifted the entire thing – including both gateposts – out of the ground.

“At that point the West Highland White took off straight for me. I ducked, he flew over my shoulder and without a backward glance headed off at high speed towards the North Downs.

Perhaps he thought freedom was an even better result that a mouthful of me.

“Just at that moment, the householders appeared to find their dog a disappearing dot on the horizon and and their parliamentary candidate, in a blue rosette, holding their unattached gate in his hands.

“In the circumstances, I couldn’t find it within me to say: ‘And may I count on your vote’?”