Usually when the Prime Minister offers a backbencher their first ministerial post, they trip over their shoelaces in the rush to accept. Not so Tracey Crouch. Even though she had been waiting for five years to be promoted – having previously been considered too rebellious – and even though she had always wanted to be Sports Minister, she hesitated when the call finally came after the General Election to offer her just that. Instead of accepting at once, she told the Prime Minister she wasn’t sure.
The reason she gave David Cameron was one many women shy away from when discussing their careers. ‘I said I wasn’t sure because I wanted to start a family and I said it so very honestly. I said to him I’m 40, I want to start a family, that I’d had a miscarriage during the election and it had changed my priorities on life in general.’ Her boss understood at once. Now the Sports Minister is pregnant, and her baby boy is due in February: something the Prime Minister was ‘delighted’ to hear about. Crouch will be the first Tory minister ever to go on maternity leave, and she will also be the first minister ever to use the shared parental leave arrangements introduced by the Coalition government, as she and her partner Steve, who works in local radio, will share time off.
‘I don’t want to be Supermum,’ she says. ‘I mean, I want to be a super mum, but not Supermum or Wonderwoman. I’ve worked really hard to be a good MP and it will be difficult to completely stop doing constituency work while on maternity leave but at the same time the first few months of a baby’s life are so incredibly precious I will want to spend every moment possible enjoying them.’
Crouch decided to be honest with the Prime Minister after her mid-election miscarriage because ‘it just made me realise really how much I wanted children’. ‘One of the things that I learned actually was how little we talk about miscarriage… I discovered that some of my closest friends had had miscarriages and hadn’t told anybody about it, and it’s, you know, it’s something that they had to cope with by themselves.’
This chatty, chirpy MP is already renowned for speaking her mind – which is what kept her away from promotion for so long. She puts considerable effort into trying to stay normal, and it shows. She doesn’t talk in soundbites that make no sense like a stereotypical politician, though she is clearly keen to show that she’s not a troublemaker inside government. Until she was a minister, she coached a youth girls’ football team, and she found this stopped her taking herself too seriously because the parents of the girls playing ‘have just taken the mickey out of me’ for things like ‘the fact my skinny legs are too white for my shorts’.
Her upbringing was ‘normal’, too: her parents divorced when she was eight years old, leaving her social worker mother to bring her and her sister up. ‘She struggled to make ends meet in a sort of classic normal way.’
Both girls won places at the local grammar school, and it was when she was forced to take an A level in government and politics that she realised she was a Conservative. ‘I’m your classic kind of accidental politician,’ she says, adding that she was inspired by John Major ‘because I was being told that I wasn’t clever enough to go to university to do Law, and I just thought actually here is a man who had himself been told on many occasions that he wasn’t clever enough or good enough to do anything.’
But given Crouch knows what it means to struggle to make ends meet, isn’t she worried about the cuts to tax credits that will hit families not unlike the one she grew up in? She’s happy to defend these controversial reforms that have agitated so many of her colleagues. ‘I think it’s about communication,’ she says, adding:
‘We will be discussing this, and I’m sure that DWP are looking at all of these issues, in great detail but I think at the end of the day one of the kindest things that we can do is try to help people to support themselves and work around their finances: some of my most heartbreaking cases are those that come to me saying that they are struggling and then you go through with them their expenditure and income – I’m not generalising at all, I’m talking about some very individual cases – and actually they 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 mother helped her understand those sorts of sacrifices, she says, and she and her sister received few Christmas presents and learned to cook early. But she also loved sport as a child, which is why she is now enjoying her job as sports minister so much now: it’s a ’round peg in a round hole appointment’, she explains, and she has clearly found it easier than many of her colleagues to take to the brief and talk confidently in interviews.
Crouch now wants the government’s sports strategy, published later this year, to focus more on encouraging those who aren’t fervent or elite sportspeople to take part. ‘It’s not just about competition,’ she states. ‘So when we’re looking at where do we invest money, time, energy, in the future, who gets more out of what we do? Somebody who goes to the gym all the time, or somebody that could be encouraged to go out and do something, even if it is just walk, you know, half a mile, who has never done that before?’
Crouch is missing being able to lead by example on the sporting front as her pregnancy progresses: she jokes she can’t even run up stairs at award ceremonies at the moment. But given she is a rare example of a minister who truly knows and loves her brief, she’ll be tearing around many football and hockey pitches for a good while longer.