She won’t reveal how she voted in the referendum, thinks people are bored of Brexit and is a rising star who is too “sensitive” to be Prime Minister – HuffPost UK’s Deputy Political Editor Owen Bennett meets Sports Minister Tracey Crouch.
The smart watch strapped to Tracey Crouch’s wrist is programmed to go off when one of two things happens: breaking political news or a goal involving her beloved Tottenham Hotspur.
Her tech settings sum up why the Sports Minister is frequently cited as one of those rarest of beasts: a politician doing a job they actually know about.
Speaking in her office, the 42-year-old agrees she is a “round peg in a round hole.”
She says: “There’s more to me than knowing about sport, but at the end of the day I do know about sport, and am one of these people that probably turns to the back pages before the front pages.”
Crouch’s office is adorned with sporting memorabilia, including cricket bats signed by the England team, and her enthusiasm for her job is obvious.
First appointed to the role by David Cameron in May 2015, she was kept on by Theresa May – who added the Civil Society brief after the 2017 election.
While her smart watch is set up for Spurs and breaking news, there is one topic which Crouch does not seem to want minute-by-minute updates on: Brexit.
Despite being billed as one of the “new pragmatic Eurosceptic” Tory MPs in 2011, Crouch is one of the very few Parliamentarians not to reveal how she voted in the EU referendum.
Crouch was on maternity leave when the majority of MPs declared whether they were for Remain or Leave, and she took to Twitter in February 2016 to say she was thinking more about breast pumps than Brexit.
More than 500 days after the vote, Crouch still won’t disclose which side she was on: “Of course I voted. I was one of seven MPs who never declared how I voted. Now I figure it an irrelevance anyway.
“I was on maternity leave so I wasn’t sort of het up and caught up in all the political campaigning, and then I just decided that I didn’t think it mattered.
She adds: “I just decided I didn’t want to declare.”
Going back through Crouch’s personal blog – which starts in 2007, three years before she was elected as MP for Chatham and Aylesford – it seems she just about leans towards Remain more than Leave.
In 2007 she demanded a referendum on the EU Treaty, but in a 2010 rant against the EU Draft Budget, she said: “Before anyone tries to paint me as an anti-European, I am not. I am certainly not a Better Off Out campaigner but I do think we need to bring back some of our sovereignty.”
She denies her secret position is a political calculation to appeal to those on both sides of the debate, and happily tears into both campaigns.
When asked what she made of Vote Leave and Stronger In, Crouch replied she was “extremely disappointed” as she watched from home while on maternity leave with the rest of the country.
“I think that both campaigns ran quite information-free campaigns so people really couldn’t make decisions, or were making decisions, on really kind of high-level slogans.
“People made their decisions based on a whole host of individual choices and how Brexit would affect their families and their communities and their businesses, but the campaign itself, just watching it as an outsider was really quite shocking.”
Crouch believes that while the “Westminster echo chamber” is fixated on Brexit, those outside SW1 just want the Government “to get on with delivering leave”.
“We are leaving and people come up to me in the streets and say ‘Can you ask the BBC’ – they always say the BBC – ‘Can you ask the BBC to stop reporting on Brexit?’ because they are sort of tired of it, to the extent that actually I recently wrote a column for my local newspaper reflecting this, that people are saying they are bored of Brexit. I wrote my entire column on Bake Off instead.
“They want us to do it, they want us to get on with it. I’m not sure they necessarily want the daily commentary on it.”
Tracey Crouch’s son Freddie recognises his mum on the tele.
There has been a lot to distract Crouch from Brexit since the election. As well as her 21-month old son, the Sports Minister had to deal with revelations involving those managing the England Women’s football team.
Manager Mark Sampson was sacked by the FA in September for “inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour” while he was in charge of Bristol Academy, while England players Eni Aluko and Drew Spence both claimed he had made racist remarks while he was the national team boss.
In November, goalkeeping coach Lee Kendall quit his role after Aluko claimed he had repeatedly spoken to her in a Caribbean accent.
In an independent review of the case, barrister Katharine Newman found Sampson had made “ill-judged attempts at humour, which, as a matter of law, were discriminatory on grounds of race”.
When asked if she feels the sport has had its reputation damaged by the affair, Crouch says: “The whole sorry saga has certainly tarnished not just the efforts of the chairman to reform, to be compliant with governance, but also some of the success on the pitch.”
As the former player and coach, Crouch is delighted with the “transformation” in women’s football in recent years.
Whereas youngsters can now idolise female players such as Steph Houghton, Fran Kirby and Lucy Bronze, Crouch says: “I’m not even sure I was aware as a young girl playing football that there’s was a women’s team. That has changed now. When I was growing up, the players that were in my head that I was pretending to be were all male players.”
When asked who Crouch would pretend to be, she replied instantly: “Clive Allen. My hero. I won’t hear a bad word said against him.”
Crouch does not believe Sampson’s replacement has to be a woman, saying: “The England manager, whoever it is, needs to be appointed on merit. That’s the same for the men’s team. I think you should always have a manager who is there who is going to do the best for the England team.”
As Sports Minister, Crouch has not been afraid to ruffle a few feathers in order to make changes. In 2015, with figures showing participation in sport flatlining, she described the Government’s strategy as “out of date”, adding: “I’m going to rip up that strategy and start again.”
She unveiled a new plan later that year, with the focus on getting youngsters as young as five getting involved in sport and trying to get more adults off the sofa and into the park or gym.
“The new sport strategy is not designed to get somebody who is fit fitter, it is designed to get somebody who was doing nothing do something,” she says.
Ahead of the strategy being announced in December 2015, Crouch gave an interview to The Spectator which garnered some unwanted headlines.
Discussing the Government’s planned cuts to tax credits, Crouch said some people who to come her constituency surgeries “just haven’t realised some of the savings that they need to make themselves, you know it can be… things like paid subscriptions to TVs and you just sit there and you think you have to sometimes go without if you are going to have people make ends meet.”
Her comments prompted a backlash from Labour MPs, with one describing her words as “frankly offensive.”
Two years on, and Crouch is clearly angry at the coverage her remarks got, saying: “Quite a lot of debt advisors contacted me after the misinterpretation by other newspapers to say that’s exactly the type of conversations they do have to have. I’m fully sympathetic of people because I’ve been there.”
Crouch racked up £15,000 of debt when she was in her twenties, and eventually her bank manager had to cut up her credit and store cards in front of her to help get control of the situation.
Explaining how she got into such a dire financial situation, Crouch says: “Straight out of university, I arrived in London and lived with people who were earning a lot more money than me.
“I wanted to keep up and got myself into horrendous debt which took a long time to pay off.”
Crouch added: “I’m fortunate to be in a well-paid job and I wouldn’t for a nanosecond think that I had the same problems as many of my constituents but I certainly from my own past can fully appreciate and understand what they’re going through which is why I always want to help.”
Perhaps the negative coverage she received over her subscription TV remarks is one of the reasons why she – unlike colleagues such as James Cleverly – has no aspirations to be Prime Minister.
Crouch says: “I’m quite a sensitive person, I’m not sure I want to see or want my family to see the daily sort of attack on me for my principles or my dress sense or things like that.
“I genuinely don’t want to do it. I think it’s a thankless task and I would be horrified on behalf of my family if they saw me being shredded on a daily basis.”