First Past the Post: MPs and peers on their parliamentary sports teams
MPs' football team play against London Ambulance Service (Sienna Rodgers)
From football and rugby to rifle shooting and netball, Sienna Rodgers talks to MPs and peers about what it means to be a good sport in Parliament
It is a sunny weekday morning, and MPs of three different parties are travelling to join captain Justin Madders at Market Road Football Pitches in Islington, north London. Conservative, Labour and SNP representatives are here for a football match against the London Ambulance Service (LAS) whose players, it soon transpires, are significantly younger and leaner than their parliamentary adversaries.
“He’s our star player,” Madders, a Labour front bencher, says as colleague Ian Byrne arrives. “That’s terrifying!” Byrne responds. Is he really your best player, then? “No,” replies Madders with a smile. “I’m the best player. I’ve been the top scorer all the time I’ve been here. Single figure goals, but…”
“When you’re on the pitch, you’re all looking out for each other, playing together”
The captain predicts they will “probably get battered today – we normally do”. This casual defeatism off the pitch is a far cry from their attitude on it, which is serious and competitive. They argue with the ref and criticise a player for diving. The scouse voices – Labour’s Ian Byrne and Conservative Karl McCartney – are the loudest.
Just 10 minutes in, however, some already look worn out, and Tory MP Huw Merriman’s hamstring has gone. At half time, they are down two goals. The team talks tactics. Madders notes, “that’s quite a good score for us”; Kinnock reckons this is “some of the best football we’ve played defensively”. Asked whether the MPs can pull it back, Conservative Ben Bradley replies: “No!” They go on to lose four-nil.
At the end of the match, Madders hands over a £1,000 cheque for the LAS charity. The team receives sponsorship money, which they spend on kit and booking pitches; whatever is left goes to good causes.
The sports teams in Parliament serve various functions, from charity to providing an outlet for politicians’ competitive spirit. Above all, it is a great way to meet colleagues from other parties – healthier than Strangers’ Bar; more fun than select committee work.
“When you’re on the pitch, you’re all looking out for each other, playing together. Then you see them in the Chamber afterwards and you’re arguing,” Byrne says.
Away from the cross-party team, the annual football games at Labour and Tory conference against the Lobby are the most anticipated events of the year. “It’s an excellent opportunity to get your revenge on journalists,” Labour’s Stephen Kinnock says. “We get 90 minutes to put in punishing tackles on journalists who usually deserve everything they get. And even when they don’t deserve it, they get it.” Fighting talk from a team that loses more often than not.
“Sometimes those matches are great fun because you get to be on the same pitch as football legends, which would never in a million years have happened in my football career otherwise,” Kinnock adds. Robbie Fowler and Bryan Robson are among the ringers who have been drafted in to play alongside MPs.
Staffers join in, too. “You never get enough MPs to fill a team and, not being funny, without people under the age of 50 they’d be rubbish,” one notes. They also have their own teams. The informal Labour aides’ football team was specifically set up to counteract the stress of working in Westminster.
“Politics can get quite lonely at times,” Labour MP staffer Andrew Mitchell says. “On our football shirts we have the Labour Campaign for Mental Health as the sponsor for that purpose.”
Alex Davies-Jones plays in the women’s MP football team, which trains twice a week and goes in for tournaments. “It’s a really great bunch of women, an opportunity to do some exercise and just have some fun in this place, which is desperately needed,” the Welsh Labour MP says.
Like the men’s team, it raises money for charities. Earlier this year, the women played the Afghan women’s team after its players were brought to the United Kingdom.
As well as philanthropy, the Commons and Lords Rugby Club has another clear cause: to nurture interparliamentary relations. Established by former Conservative MPs Phillip Oppenheim and Humfrey Malins, its first game in March 1991 was against the French parliament.
Referee Lord Hayward, who speaks French, recalls: “I had problems with the front row. I spoke French to them, then turned around to speak to the English team.” But the players didn’t understand him. Malins told Hayward: “You’re still speaking in French!”
Mark Pawsey, Conservative MP for Rugby, happens to be a rugby enthusiast and chairs the club. “Chairmanship doesn’t necessarily go with representing the town where it all started, but for me it’s a very happy coincidence,” he says.
At his first parliamentary match, the MP hadn’t played in many years and had no boots, so borrowed a pair from his son. Soon enough, “I realised he’d let me have the boots because they were really old and had slits down the side. I got absolutely soggy feet.” He enjoyed the game nonetheless and went out to buy his own.
The club plays by “Golden Oldies” rules, with uncontested scrums, for inclusivity. The team attracts all who work on the estate: researchers, doorkeepers, police officers and chefs – plus a keen competitor whose connection to the parliamentary team is that his grandfather was one of Margaret Thatcher’s personal security officers.
Their regular opponents are the Scottish, Welsh, Irish and French parliamentary teams. Every four years, the Commons and Lords Rugby Club also takes part in the Parliamentary World Cup, a week-long tournament against South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina. In 2015, when England was hosting, Pawsey was on a school visit a couple of months before the Cup started. “Mr Pawsey, Mr Pawsey, come out to the playground – the class are going to show you their haka,” the headteacher told him.
“I went into the playground and the entire school was doing the haka; some more vigorously than others, but they were going through all the moves,” the MP remembers. He suggested the children do it for the opening ceremony, and they agreed.
“The school did their haka in front of the New Zealand parliamentary team. They’ve got some pretty tasty rugby players in them – they’re big lads. The players knelt down so they were at eye level with the primary school kids, which I thought was a really nice gesture.
“At the end, when the kids had done their haka, the teacher said, ‘would the New Zealand players like to do their haka in front of the children?’. We raised that with the New Zealand captain, who said, ‘Mark, we’d love to do that, but we wouldn’t want to scare the little blighters!’.”
“It’s completely open to everybody. We’re not trying for sporting excellence – we’re trying for enjoyment”
Other parliamentarians prefer a calmer sport: target rifle shooting. Although there was once a shooting range in the House of Lords basement, the space was needed for fire suppression equipment and the range is no more. Yet there are still Commons and Lords teams which do a different kind of shooting – outdoors, full-bore rather than small-bore.
“It’s a very peaceful thing – apart from the noise,” team captain Lord Lucas says. “It’s completely open to everybody. We’re not trying for sporting excellence – we’re trying for enjoyment.” Everyone in Parliament is invited each year to compete in an annual event hosted by the National Rifle Association in Bisley, where the two teams battle to win the Vizianagram Cup.
“It’s actually two cups,” says Tory MP Mark Garnier, who has captained the Commons team for 12 years. “The trophy is about the most amazing I’ve ever seen. It’s two silver spice jars with chains hanging off and each one about two foot high. Quite something.
“The prizes were given to the National Rifle Association by the Maharaja of Vizianagram in about 1890. The House of Lords and Commons have shot for this competition pretty much every year, with the exception of the world wars, since then.”
There are the very old sports teams in Parliament, and there are also the barely nascent. Caroline Dinenage, Tory MP for Gosport, hopes to revive the parliamentary netball team, after organising a course for MPs in 2011 – a move she plans to repeat in September.
“When I first became an MP back in 2010, I was just dismayed that in those days all the teams here were male-orientated,” Dinenage says. “I got England Netball to run one of their ‘Back to Netball’ courses for us. It was quite fun.”
There was a reunion in 2019, when an MP cricket tournament brought over New Zealanders who wanted to play netball too. “We had Tracey Crouch, Helen Whately, Mims Davies, lovely Tonia [Antoniazzi] from Labour, Antoinette Sandbach – I thought she’d be great because she wasn’t wildly interested in netball but she was about 6’3 so she was quite useful to stand by the goal.” (She is in fact a little taller.) They lost badly, however.
“I don’t really like exercise unless it’s disguised as a game. Netball is a really nice way of keeping fit without dying of boredom,” Dinenage says. “The only downside is I could never have nice nails when I played netball because they check them before you have a match to make sure you’re not going to take someone’s eye out.”
When we speak, the MP is fresh from a Macmillan Cancer tug of war victory. “It was a good example of me and Angela Rayner pulling in the same direction,” she quips. They may not be winning many medals, but from formal, long-established teams to one-off events, sport is certainly thriving in Parliament.
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