Toothpastey Tracey brings air of virtue to the proceedings
YESTERDAY’S Government Statement about betting shops was delivered by the games mistress – Tracey Crouch, Minister for Sport. Miss Crouch has been in her position for three years and has become a reliable performer at the despatch box. She may not quite be top-team material but she does not make many mistakes.
She came to the House to announce that the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals would be reduced from £100 to £2. Bookies are aghast at this plan and predict terrible job losses. Everyone else seemed pretty pleased, arguing that the social damage of gambling outweighed economic concerns.
Indeed, the welcome Miss Crouch received on all sides of the Chamber made it seem odd that she was repeatedly told how brave she had been. But perhaps that tells us how modern politics works.
For Labour, Tom Watson said ‘this is a great moment’. Small but inconvenient fact: it was New Labour’s loosening of gambling laws in 2005 that probably caused many of today’s gamblingaddiction problems. How distant now seems the amoralism of the Blair years.
Iain Duncan Smith (Con, Chingford & Woodford Green) offered Miss Crouch ‘ congratulations’. Ronnie Cowan – slovenly with hand in pocket and no tie – for the SNP was similarly delighted. Carolyn Harris (Lab, Swansea E) started gushing ‘thank yous’ to the minister for doing something to reduce the social damage of machines which have cost some gambling addicts ‘their houses, dignity and self-respect’. Norman Lamb (Lib Dem, N Norfolk) called the Statement ‘a considerable personal achievement’ for Miss Crouch ‘that she should be proud of’.
With the only sceptical noises coming from Philip Davies (Con, Shipley) and John Whittingdale ( Con, Maldon), can we really regard yesterday’s decision to change the maximum stakes on these machines as such a ‘considerable personal achievement’?
Would it not be more accurate to call Miss Crouch’s move yesterday ‘inevitable and low-risk’?
Dear readers, welcome to the world of lobbying. The bookies of Britain are formidable networkers. They attend political party conferences and buy an awful lot of drinks. They lean on Cabinet ministers. Two years ago almost a third of financial donations to MPs came from sports and betting firms. Kerching kerching.
So that is what Mr Lamb was possibly referring to: Miss Crouch had overturned the lobbyists’ charabanc. The sports mistress certainly brought an air of virtue to proceedings. Miss Crouch is haloed by a toothpastey earnestness. What a clean-living, keep-fit sort of person she is. It is almost a surprise that she does not turn up on the front bench in a track-suit.
If you think that far-fetched, let it be recorded that on Wednesday the Secretary of State for International Development, Penny Mordaunt, attended PMQs in a rugby shirt bearing the logo of UK Aid.
yet, for all her sporty incorruptability, Miss Crouch often seems to have a runny nose. Does she eat enough liver?
She said a ‘significant’ factor in her decision to go for such a low maximum stake had been her personal meetings with problem gamblers.
There had been talk the Government might go for a compromise and lower the fixed-odds stakes to only £30 – this was something Mr Whittingdale raised – but Miss Crouch described how several of the gambling addicts she met had told her they considered committing suicide, such was their desperation. She sounded shaken by this.
John Hayes (Con, S Holland & the Deepings) averred that gambling is now nothing like his father’s weekly pools coupons.
Bob Seely (Con, Isle of Wight), who is becoming so furiously pious a figure that the Bishop of Portsmouth might want to raise his game, compared bookies to parasites. Andrew Selous (Con, SW Beds) zoomed off into orbit, demanding that the Government’s next social crusade should be against fast-food adverts aimed at children.
Methodist brimstone is no longer thought quite the thing in pulpits but here at Westminster we’re only just warming up.
They’ll be calling for plain packaging for wine and spirits next, just you watch.