Tracey Crouch MP on cancer, resigning from Government and Harry Kane
March 8, 2021. Series 3. Episode 22
Former Government Minister Tracey Crouch is the kind of MP who restores your faith in politics. Authentic, no-nonsense and, as she puts it, determined to stay the same person who occasionally goes to the supermarket in her slippers. In this episode she talks us through the crises she’s faced in politics and her personal life, including a diagnosis last year with breast cancer. The Spurs loving former Sports Minister tells us how she managed that crisis with a pragmatic approach driven by perspective, a focus on the positives and a determination to ‘max out on life.’ In this episode Tracey also fights her way through a few unexpected bangs and crashes … caused by her cats coming in and out of the cat flap. Tracey is, literally, unflappable. Bags of lessons here for anyone facing their own challenges.
Tracey’s Crisis Cures:
1. Football: “I love it. It’s a real distraction. Although, I don’t feel so relaxed by football when I’m actually in the stadium…”
2. My allotment: “I find my mind can completely empty of any stress or trouble when you’re sat digging over a bed.”
3. Reading: “I love reading children’s books. I love going back to a time when things were just simpler. We should all find the time to sit quietly in the corner with Stig of the Dump.”
Seemingly devoid of the usual politician’s ‘how will this play?’ break on her conversation. Tracey is so utterly authentic and genuine. From the reasoning behind her shock resignation from government to the trauma behind her cancer diagnosis, Tracey showed herself to be the right kind of team player. Or, as she put it brilliantly, “I’m a Spurs fan who doesn’t stand up because they hate Arsenal.”
Tracey’s no-nonsense approach to her cancer diagnosis last June focused on the positives, the importance of perspective, exercise and mindfulness. This week she’ll begin professional counselling recognising that it’s often at the end of treatment that anxiety can really begin. My bet is that Tracey will be back in government pretty soon and it’s quite likely to be around the cabinet table.
I’m sure that that girl from Kent whose resilience first developed as a latchkey kid will do brilliantly. Why? Because she is actively determined not to let politics change who she is. Or as she puts it “I want to be a mum, a wife, someone who occasionally goes to the shops in their slippers and someone who likes to shout obscenities at the referee”. How fantastic.
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Host – Andy Coulson
Producer – Louise Difford
00:00:00.00 Intro music
00:00:19.04 Andy Coulson:
Hello and welcome to Series Three of Crisis What Crisis? A podcast designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and continue to come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether personal, professional or both, crisis is without doubt, the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last five years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking, as the first lockdown began, that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experience of those whose lives have properly unravelled.
00:01:05.15 Andy Coulson:
So, in Crisis What Crisis? I talk to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, our guests share their experiences though, with honesty, often with humour but always in the hope that they might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply these are crisis conversations worth sharing. Stay tuned at the end of the episode when I’ll give my thoughts and takeaways, the lessons, if you like, for when life unravels. And if you enjoy the podcast please do subscribe and give us a rating and a review, it really helps make sure these stories reach an even wider audience of people who may find them useful and that, in the end, is what it’s all about.
00:01:52.20 Andy Coulson:
Crisis What Crisis? is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing. Whether it be music for meditation, to help focus, sleep, stress relief, yoga and fitness, rejuvenation even grief and loss, Myndstream is there to improve human performance. I’ve tried it, it works and I’d recommend having a listen to the Myndstream catalogue yourself. Just search Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify. Thanks again for joining me.
00:02:25.23 Andy Coulson:
My guest today is the former government minister Tracey Crouch. Tracey is one of those MPs who restores your faith in politics. Talented, no-nonsense and a woman who knows her own mind. That she is also a devoted Spurs fan, I think, is another key indicator of her all round brilliance. But Tracey, the MP for Chatham and Aylesford in Kent is also an incredibly resilient individual handling a number of professional and personal crises without a scintilla of self-pity but with bucketloads of determination.
00:02:57.06 Andy Coulson:
At work she found herself in the headlines when she resigned as Sports Minister, a job she loved, on the point of principle over a government delay in dealing with the menace of fixed-odds betting terms. She later turned down an offer to join the cabinet to ensure her son was settled in school. But more recently, last June in fact, Tracey found herself facing down an altogether more serious crisis, a diagnosis of stage 2b breast cancer and the gruelling chemotherapy and radio therapy that followed. Those treatments, I’m delighted to say, are now over and Tracey is looking forward, in her rather brilliant words, to max out on life. Tracey Crouch, thank you for joining us on Crisis What Crisis? How are you?
00:03:39.01 Tracey Crouch:
Well thank you for having me and I’m very well thank you.
00:03:41.07 Andy Coulson:
Good, good, good. Let’s start with life as a Spurs fan shall we, Tracey?
00:03:47.04 Tracey Crouch:
Well, Crisis What Crisis?
00:03:50.04 Andy Coulson:
Exactly, I’ve always said to my sons who’ve never forgiven me for indoctrinating them as Spurs fans that it’s training for life. You know, that cycle of hope, occasional, very occasional glory and disappointment, I assume you’d agree with that?
00:04:09.18 Tracey Crouch:
Oh totally and one of the first things that I did was buy my son a Spurs kit because I kind of sit there and think that if I’ve had to deal with this throughout my entire life then he can too. I sort of see it as my means of ensuring that he understands what pain and hurt and disappointment is. If you’re going to learn those things in life and how they’re all part of the general fabric of life then at least learn it through football rather than in other ways. But yeah, no it’s been an interesting season. I think we started so full of hope as is always the case, and…
00:04:51.12 Andy Coulson:
00:04:53.06 Tracey Crouch:
And then you know here we are, mid-table, potentially not even knocking on the door of Europe.
00:04:57.23 Andy Coulson:
It has, it’s absolutely, this season has absolutely been a microcosm of what it is to be a Spurs fan.
00:05:03.15 Tracey Crouch:
Well the only thing I take, I always try to look on the bright side of these things and the one upside for me is that I’m a season ticket holder so I haven’t actually lost any money this year, because of the pandemic, watching them be bad. So you know I think it would have been even worse if my season tickets were still costing me a fortune.
00:05:27.13 Andy Coulson:
Do you know what, I’m a season ticket holder as well and I had that conversation with Spurs very recently and reflected in exactly the same way. Well thank god it hasn’t cost me any money. You’re also an FA qualified football coach, you’ve played a fair bit of football. So joking aside, it’s been a big part of your life hasn’t it? And presumably it’s been an important one in the tough times? We sometimes forget the importance of the things that we love, aside from our families, in those moments. Is that true?
00:06:02.14 Tracey Crouch:
Yeah, I think so. I mean, football has always been a big part of my life and in many ways perhaps it is the starting point of how I cope with things in life. So for example, I grew up in the eighties, girls weren’t really encouraged to play football. I was banned from playing football with the boys at playtime at primary school. I went to an all-girls school where football just wasn’t even offered and it wasn’t until I went to university that I actually played my first competitive game of football. And yet I’d played football when I came home from school at the weekends and everything just with my mates out on the street.
00:06:39.00 Tracey Crouch:
And I look back now and think, with the grown up hindsight that I have, that obviously it was unfair that I wasn’t allowed to play football at school but at the time I wasn’t even conscious of the idea that somehow this was unfair or that I was being treated differently. You know, you just got on with it. I guess I accepted it because I was a young school child but I just didn’t really think about it in a sort of aggressive or hostile way. I just thought fine, you know, I’ll play netball and rounders but at home I’ll play football.
00:07:18.12 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, you got on with it?
00:07:19.19 Tracey Crouch:
Yeah, I just got on with it. And then you know, I did all the football things that weren’t related to playing. So collected my Panini stickers, did swapsies in the playground, you know I could kick a ball until the teacher told me that I wasn’t supposed to be there. And you know and so on and then I just used to play on the streets when I got home.
00:07:44.12 Andy Coulson:
Let’s talk a bit about your journey to becoming, from those streets, to becoming a government minister. You grew up in Kent, not a political family, I think I’m right in saying. Your mum’s a social worker. You were obviously pretty diligent at school and as I understand it law seemed to be the most likely route, I think, at one stage. So what was the trigger to politics? When did you really start to think, actually I’m more interested in this than I thought?
00:08:13.22 Tracey Crouch:
Yeah, actually it was a bit of an accidental introduction into politics because it was all down to having and A’ Level subject clash. I wanted to do AS Maths and I wasn’t able to do it with the two other preferred A’ Levels that I’d chosen, which was History and English Literature. So I just chose politics and I just thought, oh that sounds interesting, didn’t really think anything of it. You know I don’t consciously remember being at home having political conversations. I mean, we must have watched the news but I still…
00:08:46.24 Andy Coulson:
But what about politics in a more general sense, what about issues? Was there a sense…? Because you’re someone who is, as I said in the intro, right, you know your own mind and you’re a woman of principle as we’ll get into in a little bit more detail later. But as a teenager or as someone going into their A’ Levels were you already kind of leaning towards issues? did you have that kind of sense of injustice about things?
00:09:13.11 Tracey Crouch:
No, not really, I was too busy playing football. Honestly, genuinely I just didn’t think of these things. And I think kids are far more engaged in politics and current affairs than I was. It was the era of things like ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64 and all that sort of stuff. And I just didn’t, I guess I just didn’t consciously clock issues as such. But we must have had discussions over the dinner table about things. You know, my mum was probably quite left-leaning. So I remember her stories about how she’d gone on some Mrs Thatcher Mild Snatcher rally or something or other when she was in her teens and but again I was like that’s literally it. That’s all I can remember. Because I was just, I played. I would come home from school; I’d do my homework and I’d go out until I was told I had to come in. I just don’t think that happens now.
00:10:17.05 Andy Coulson:
So you did your A’ Levels, you went to uni.
00:10:18.08 Tracey Crouch:
I did my A’ Levels, I had a really, really good teacher actually and I think actually the thing that triggered a real interest, and I think it’s what triggered interest now in youngsters today, was that I was doing my A’ Levels during the Maastricht crisis. So I actually just started my A’ Levels just as John Major took over as Prime Minister or shortly after John Major took over as Prime Minister. And then obviously we then had a couple of years of Maastricht and the election, the ’92 election in between. And that was something that was real and relevant and interesting.
00:10:59.20 Tracey Crouch:
And John Major, for me, and I appreciate this sounds bizarre to most people, but I found John Major really quite interesting. He sort of spoke to me because there he was from a low income, divorced family and thanks to his grammar school education, and I was in a grammar school, he’d worked his way up through into where he was in government. And there he was as Prime Minister. And it was all about meritocracy and it was about providing opportunity and I actually thought if that working class man can do that then the sky’s the limit really. Although I’ve never wanted to be Prime Minister. But it did actually inspire me to think perhaps I could do something similar. And then again, I was as you say, destined to do law and then I saw, just complete happenstance really, I saw a course at the same law school of law and politics and I thought, well I’m quite interested, I’m obviously getting good grades so I’ll give it a go and really enjoyed it.
00:12:11.24 Andy Coulson:
And then out of uni you worked as a Chief of Staff eventually, for the Shadow Cabinet members. You worked for Michael Howard.
00:12:19.23 Tracey Crouch:
00:12:21.06 Andy Coulson:
But you clearly the sort of tribal bit of politics was not attractive to you. That was not part of the motivation. Team playing, being in a team, yes but you strike me, if I’m wrong tell me, but you strike me as someone who’s not particularly tribal?
00:12:40.10 Tracey Crouch:
I am to some extent but I’m not a wagging finger, pointy wavy type tribalist. So it’s a bit like, going back to football, I’m a Spurs fan who doesn’t stand up because they hate Arsenal. You know, because actually, I would never support Arsenal. But I can sit there and think well actually they do have some good players and some of their tactics are interesting and perhaps we should think about formation and it pains me to say but Arsène Wenger was clearly extraordinarily talented and things like that. But I would never dream of supporting arsenal. And I think the same is true in politics, you know, I am a conservative through and through, you know cut me in half and I would bleed blue blood but at the same time I don’t necessarily think that everything Tony Blair did was awful and I don’t necessarily think that everything the Labour Party put forward as a proposal is dreadful just because it comes from Labour.
00:13:49.15 Tracey Crouch:
And I think sometimes you know, we’ve just got to get away from that and recognise that some of the best policies come out of consensus and working together and cooperation. And you know I’ve found that my attitude in the Chamber of not standing up and being this sort of naked, tribal Tory means that I don’t get shouted down across parliament and I don’t get booed or harangued or anything like that by colleagues on the opposite benches because I just don’t go into that. And likewise I don’t do the same to them. So I just think it’s about having an open mind about policy really.
00:14:32.13 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. No, I’m with you. Once you were there though, how did you deal with… because that tribal, less attractive element of tribal politics is there, right? And we’ve seen it actually not even partly, we’ve seen it within the party obviously through the whole Brexit process. How did you, arriving in Westminster, how did you deal with that. Because it wasn’t a crisis but it was a challenge, one imagines, to navigate that, to work all that out arriving? Or had you seen enough of it already, frankly, from an advisor point of view?
00:15:06.16 Tracey Crouch:
I think I’d seen enough of it and also I… because my time in parliament had been, previous time in parliament had been at two very different times in political fortune. So for example I was there between 1996 and 1998 so I’d actually worked for a whole group of MPs, five MPs actually in total, of which four lost their seats in 1997. And Michael Howard was the only one that survived the cull and actually that was a crisis in Conservative party politics. There was an identity crisis there was also this sense of feeling people had survived the car crash and they didn’t quite know how to deal with that themselves. So you had a lot of angry people who had lost and then you had a lot of people who were unsure how to feel because they had won. And so that was a really interesting period.
00:16:03.22 Tracey Crouch:
And then I was back in again between 2003 and 2005 and became working for Michael Howard as leader, albeit I was working for his cabinet members or shadow cabinet members. And there was a different sense, there was a sense of optimism, there was a sense of Labour Party fortunes beginning to turn and although we didn’t win the 2005 election it didn’t quite feel like it was a crisis. It didn’t feel like it was the end. And certainly after David Cameron won the leadership election that followed there was a real sense of hope and a different… and so it didn’t really feel like a crisis.
00:16:41.00 Tracey Crouch:
And so when I got in in 2010, although we hadn’t obviously won a majority, I think there was still such a large sense of optimism about the result and the huge number of new conservative MPs, the number of female MPs, the number of MPs who represented different types of seats. So my seat traditionally a Labour seat, very urban, very working class and all of a sudden it’s got a Tory MP. And so that sort of felt like a real change. So although it could have been seen as a crisis and there’ve been many books written about why we didn’t win the 2010 election and what coalition meant it was just one of those things that you just carried on walking down that path really.
00:17:30.02 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I mean, we did our best, I think, to turn it into a positive. And a new intake is a fundamental part of that. And the sun was shining and press conferences were being held in the Rose Garden and all that stuff. It was a golden era.
00:17:48.06 Tracey Crouch:
It was and I actually think history will be kind on the coalition. I still talk with colleagues now very fondly about the coalition. And there were struggles, let’s not pretend that it was all sunshine and joy but there were real struggles and there were rebellions of which I was normally part of. but we got stuff done. And we got stuff done on a really good, one nation agenda and I felt very comfortable with the direction of travel most of the time with the coalition. As I say, I think I rebelled quite a lot so it might not look like it from my record, but actually I think it was something that we will look back on much more favourably than was perhaps thought of at the time.
00:18:55.01 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, I think you’re right. Let’s talk about your resignation in November 2018. You’d pushed for the maximum stake on fixed-odds betting terminals, described by the government as a social blight. There was no disagreement about that at all. Everyone was in violent agreement about it. And for that stake to be reduced from £100 to £2 and that was set to happen from April 2019. But then it was delayed by six months. You believe because of presumably pressure from the betting industry. Your resignation took a lot of people by surprise. Tell me about the thought process. Because you’ve described it as a very easy decision for you.
00:19:42.22 Tracey Crouch:
It was a remarkably easy decision and actually it was a crisis in government that was completely unnecessary because as you said, we’d already had the battle about the stake reduction and that was all settled and we’d agreed that. But the introduction of it was something that the Treasury didn’t particularly want to do. So the policy was very much in DCMS, it sat in DCMS department but the implementation was in the Treasury. And it was quite clear that they were going to start dragging their heels. And people just didn’t believe that I would give up the best job in government over what they thought was six months delay.
00:20:28.05 Tracey Crouch:
But what they hadn’t quite realised was that one, I became increasingly suspicious of Treasury motives and actually if you look back at what happened in 2019 with all the Brexit shenanigans and delays on everything, I’m pretty certain it wouldn’t have been introduced at all, not even in October 2019. And I wasn’t willing to defend the delay. I’ve met people who had contemplated suicide because of gambling addictions. And for me to look them in the eye and say, ‘It’s okay, it’s only six months’ I just wasn’t going to do it. It was not my policy and I wasn’t going to defend it. And I had spoken to people about me resigning over it. They just didn’t believe it and so that was their problem really.
00:21:23.00 Tracey Crouch:
Because what then happened obviously is I did resign, government was left with universal condemnation as a consequence, I had cross-party support including from people that you would never dream of thinking that they were on the same page in terms of gambling, such as Jacob Rees Mogg for example. And we managed to put down an amendment to a finance bill that would effectively starve government of revenue unless they changed it to April. And so they capitulated less than ten days I think it was, two weeks later and accepted it and brought it in in the April. So it was completely unavoidable really.
00:22:07.00 Andy Coulson:
Well your resignation was unavoidable, I mean, you could have made a decision, actually do you know what, it’s six months. And you didn’t do that and the reason you didn’t do that is because you meant what you said and because you could see that a six month delay was going to create crisis for a large number of people because you’d spent a lot of time looking at the real impact of these machines. This wasn’t just one of those kind of fly by night policy positions that you took, you felt it, right? You spent time around the families who were affected.
00:22:43.09 Tracey Crouch:
Yeah, it took us three years to get to that point. I mean the first thing, when I walked into office after David Cameron appointed me in May 2015 I met all my teams on the first day. And I said to the gambling team there and then, ‘I want a review of fixed-odd betting terminals’. And it was May 2018, so it took three years to get from me asking the gambling team to review stakes through to the policy being announced.
00:23:37.16 Tracey Crouch:
And in that time I’d met many people who were deeply affected as a consequence of these machines and indeed other forms of gambling, not just these machines, and I remain convinced that my resignation was the right thing to do, not least because only this morning I got an email from somebody saying, you saved my life. And you know, this is two years on from my resignation. And I think it’s things like that that’s what made it easy. I mean I think when you split up with somebody, you split up with a partner there is this moment where you sit there and think oh maybe I’ve done the wrong thing or perhaps I should have given it a bit more time and everything else. And actually it didn’t feel like that at all and I had no regrets and I think that probably just shows you that it was the right thing to do.
00:24:30.08 Andy Coulson:
There must have been a part of you, though or a voice, presumably not a very loud one by the sounds of it, but a voice that was saying, ‘well if I do this the door might shut forever, there might not be a route back to a big really interesting really challenging job at some other point in my life’. I don’t think that’s how it’s turned out at all and we’ll talk about that a bit later. But at the time you’re making the decision on the basis well do you what I might well be saying goodbye to another ministerial job.
00:25:00.19 Tracey Crouch:
I didn’t really care to be honest with you. The reason being that I was, I’d been described as a reluctant minister in the first place. So for me being in politics isn’t about climbing the ministerial ladder and David offered me the one job in government that I wanted. If he’d offered me something else I wouldn’t have taken it because I didn’t want to be a minister for the sake of being minister. I had no kind of desire to be walking around full of self-importance with the red box, you know, there’s more to life in politics than having a red box.
00:25:43.00 Tracey Crouch:
So you know I wasn’t really fussed but he offered me the job I wanted and I wanted to do that job exceptionally well and I threw everything into it for three and a half years. So I didn’t feel that I was walking away from something in the future because I already had achieved what I had wanted to achieve in ministerial terms. And I still feel that now. You know, if I get offered a job in the next reshuffle I’d think about it if I’m not it doesn’t bother me. I’m not fussed about it. I don’t want to be Prime Minister so going up the ministerial ladder is not… I mean, say if I was offered a cabinet role back in sport, then fine, I’d take it. But if I was offered Work and Pensions or the Environment or something I wouldn’t because it’s not, I don’t want it for the sake of it.
00:26:48.03 Andy Coulson:
Your resignation was unusual for another reason because, it took people by surprise, but it was also a resignation curiously devoid of the usual histrionics. And I’ve been in and around resignations, I’m a resigning recidivist as you know. But also from a political point of view I was around when others were having to, through the expenses farrago for example and more often than not it would, a resignation would be followed by a period of drama and histrionics; yours wasn’t. I’ve resigned, this is why I’ve done it, thanks very much. I’ve really not got anything more to say.
00:27:32.18 Tracey Crouch:
00:27:33.02 Andy Coulson:
That was quite an unusual approach in politics.
00:27:37.01 Tracey Crouch:
I don’t really want to be a celebrity for certain things, to be honest with you. I’m not a particularly media performer. I don’t really covet a lot of attention. My ego is secure enough I don’t need…
00:27:55.15 Andy Coulson:
Isn’t that funny, and I’m not just saying this because we’re sat on the podcast together, you’re a brilliant media performer. Because what you say is utterly believable. I think I’m sure anyone listening to this would already have kind of, if they’ve not listened to you before would already have deduced that.
00:28:11.14 Tracey Crouch:
Yeah, I’m really crap at lying. I mean, honestly I have never been on Any Questions or Question Time or anything I have refused point blank to do any of those things because you inevitably end up on the one week where you fundamentally disagree with whatever is in the newspaper. And you’re right, I’m a team player, but I would be so bad at saying, ‘Oh well, the reason why we’re doing, Crap Policy X is because you know…’ and pretending that it’s all amazing. And so I guess I’m just…
00:28:51.03 Tracey Crouch:
I know what my strengths and my weakness are. And things like that. But in terms of I got told very early on by Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson, that if I was to rebel on tuition fees which was my first rebellion in the coalition, do what I had to do but don’t go out and talk about it. Don’t try and make yourself a star out of it. He said, ‘You’ve effectively danced on the grave of your whip, you don’t need to go and shout about it on TV.’ And I thought that was really good, sensible advice and I’ve kind of always thought that. Which is I will do what I have to do in the voting lobbies but I don’t need to become a superstar from it.
00:29:49.06 Andy Coulson:
That’s really interesting because that distinction between media and politics is one that not every politician understands or perhaps they just choose to ignore. That there are a lot of, not all, not by any measure, not even close to a majority of all, but a significant number of politicians who think that they’re on the set of House of Cards, you know, in everything that they do and that every decision they make needs therefore to have some kind of media plan attached to it.
00:30:24.05 Tracey Crouch:
That’s true and but some of those colleagues become parodies of themselves. And journos feed off that. If they need a quote they know who they’re going to go to and actually what it ends up doing is it dilutes your own influence. So if MP X is quoted in every single article about the government or the Prime Minister or whoever, then actually their view becomes less interesting to the person that you’re trying to damage. Because they just kind of sit there and say, ‘Oh well they would say that wouldn’t they?’ Whereas if you don’t say anything but then you crop up and say something people are like, ‘oh okay, well maybe we should pay a bit more interest because they’ve said something that they wouldn’t normally go out and say in public.’
00:31:26.06 Andy Coulson:
Exactly right. Tracey, you seem to take a similar approach, if you don’t mind me saying so, with your diagnosis in June, when you were diagnosed with breast cancer. I mean, I’ve no doubt at all that there were deeply painful moments of sort of private despair about it. How could there not be in those circumstances? But outwardly your approach to what is really the worst kind of crisis, the words you used was workmanlike. Once you’d obviously got over the initial shock of the diagnosis. Tell me, if you don’t mind, because as you know this podcast is geared primarily towards helping people who are going through crisis, tell me about the diagnosis if you don’t mind, in the first instance, and how that initial reaction, but how you managed to get to that workmanlike approach to it as quickly as you did.
00:32:29.16 Tracey Crouch:
Yeah, I don’t mind talking about it at all because I think it helps raise awareness. I think I very much sat in the camp as somebody who at the time of diagnosis was 44, was fit and healthy to suddenly sort of find out that you’ve got breast cancer, which in my mind quite wrongly clearly, I had always thought of it as something that happens to older and unhealthier people, it was a sort of shock. There’s no other way of saying it, I was genuinely surprised. And then you go through all the sort of mixed emotions of why me? And everything else. But actually that was quite a short process for me because I did become very practical about it.
00:33:24.18 Tracey Crouch:
I think a few things, one I live in my constituency so I use the local hospital and clearly when you’re going into either a breast care unit or oncology, which is what you do at the start of the diagnosis, and people are recognising you, it’s only a matter of time before it gets sold to the papers. And so I wanted to take control of the message, which is why I put out the statement that I did when I did, because it was quite clear that I would very soon be spending more time in hospital than in parliament. And so that was kind of, that was a thing. And I would have loved to have gone under my duvet and kind of pretended that it wasn’t happening but what would that have achieved? And it would have achieved nothing. So I think there were practical considerations about it. I’ve also got a little boy who was four at the time, he’s five now. There was no way I was going to sit there and not get on with bringing up my son and begin a normal mum and just trying to get on with life, albeit with this little blip in the journey.
00:34:46.24 Tracey Crouch:
And I guess the other thing is that I’ve always considered myself quite lucky with the kind of cancer that I have gone through. And my feeling of this has got stronger as I’ve spent more time in hospital because it was caught early, my breast cancer was caught early so the diagnosis and the outcomes were good. And I didn’t lose my breast, I had a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy so already I feel lucky for that. It hadn’t spread beyond the sentinel lymph node so again, I felt lucky. And it could have been a lot worse a cancer. And when I was sat there in oncology having my chemotherapy, seeing people whose chemo is really to keep them alive as opposed to cure them, which is what mine is for, then I just count my blessings really. So that’s why I took it on as a practical thing which is you will get through this, it’s going to be gruelling but you’ll come out the other end and you can just get on with living the rest of your life.
00:36:13.17 Andy Coulson:
We ask this question quite a lot on this podcast of people who’ve been in a crisis for a whole range of different reasons. But that resilience, that kind of avoiding the ‘why me?’ bit, how or rather why do you think you have that in you? What sort of school of thought are you from? Do you think it’s sort of luck or upbringing? Or do you think your working life somehow has contributed to that attitude or something else in your life?
00:36:48.13 Tracey Crouch:
Probably a combination of all of the above to be honest with you. I mean, I did have a good upbringing. We were latchkey kids. My mum hates the fact that we talk about it in that sense because she thinks that we say that as if it’s some sort of criticism towards her. But actually I think it’s the complete opposite. She went out and worked so that we had food on the table. And I’m enormously and I’m enormously proud of her for that but it meant that we became quite resilient and self-reliant at a very young age and again, I think that’s a blessing, that’s a good thing. So my mum gets upset because she thinks that we’re criticising but it’s not at all. I actually think it’s turned out really well for both me and my sister.
00:37:37.01 Andy Coulson:
Your sister is, I’m guessing, equally resilient and takes a similar view?
00:37:46.07 Tracey Crouch:
Yes, although she is much shier than I am. Or less gobby if you like. But yeah, she works really hard and she works in a school and her and her family have their fair amount of crisis and they get through it. And I guess we just do; we just get on with it. And again, I think that goes back to what I was saying at the beginning. I ride with it really. I don’t like a lot of controversy and I don’t like a lot of aggression and I don’t like a lot of argument, which means I’m probably in the wrong career. But I kind of take that with my cancer as well. I was surrounded by experts, I effectively succumbed to the experts and I just did as I was told. And I think that made my own journey through the crisis a lot easier. I’m not afraid to ask for help, I’m not afraid to ask for support, I’m not afraid to not know things and I think that sometimes that helps you in a crisis.
00:39:02.10 Andy Coulson:
You had a great phrase you said you had to deal with the challenge of being vulnerable which was not something that you’d done before.
00:39:11.15 Tracey Crouch:
Well I had to again, just get on with it. Because I didn’t like… so that phrase about feeling vulnerable was in relation to the beginning of this year when Coronavirus was absolutely ripping through Kent, we now know through the variant. The hospitals were full. I have the privilege, for want of a better phrase, of seeing weekly numbers on hospital admissions, ICU, critical care and deaths and so I was fully aware of what was happening in the two local hospitals. And all of a sudden, unlike last year, I had no immune system because of chemotherapy or rather a battered immune system because of chemotherapy and I had to start behaving like I was clinically, extremely vulnerable as I had been labelled.
00:40:12.13 Tracey Crouch:
And I did to some extent but I also didn’t, it’s the rebel in me. So I was obviously very well behaved in terms of personal hygiene, washing and everything else. So my other half would come home from work and wash his hands and face and change clothes before he came near and everything. But then at the same time I’d take my son to school. So he is, as all children of that age are, a complete germ factory and so I had to be kind of a bit realistic about the fact that there was going to be stuff that was coming in and out anyway. And I guess I just tried not to be frightened by it but I was.
00:41:04.18 Tracey Crouch:
And where I was particularly rubbish was that I’m not very good at staying indoors because I like the outdoors, and I like being fit and healthy. And I’d suddenly find myself up at the local supermarket thinking, do you know what, I’m not supposed to be here. And that’s when I’d suddenly think oh my god I feel really vulnerable and get out as quickly as possible. So it was just managing all those different needs and desires with what I practically should be doing to look after myself.
00:41:39.20 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, you are being characteristically low-key about what you went through but it was two operations, there was a moment I think when a scan suggested, thankfully turned out to be not the case, that the cancer may have spread. Eight rounds of chemo, five rounds of radiotherapy. I mean, you can describe it as tough but it’s beyond tough. When you’re in the middle of all that and obviously how can you not be thinking and worrying about the potential consequences? So you’ve talked about it from an organisational point of view and how you organise yourself. How were you organising yourself mentally?
00:42:25.16 Tracey Crouch:
I practice mindfulness. So I do some meditation. I’m not as disciplined at it as others but I did find that at certain points of the treatment programme, I was using mindfulness a lot more than at other points.
00:42:44.12 Andy Coulson:
Do you use an app?
00:42:47.11 Tracey Crouch:
I do, I have two apps but also we had some sessions in parliament a few years ago so I still have the learnings from those practices as well. So for example MRI scans are particularly horrible and I would use breathing techniques throughout that in order to cope with that. Some of those MRI exams are like 45 minutes to an hour long. So they’re really horrible. So I use a lot of mindfulness. I also used a lot of exercise which I continue to try and do throughout my treatment and I find walking and cycling a great way of calming the mind. I also talk as well, I’m quite open with people about my mental health and it’s important to recognise when you are struggling with things. And so I would talk to other people who have been through it and they’d say it’s perfectly normal.
00:43:59.11 Andy Coulson:
Did you get some counselling can I ask?
00:44:01.13 Tracey Crouch:
No, but I am due to start counselling next week because actually one of the hardest things about treatment and it’s very, very normal for people going through cancer for this to be the case, is it’s the end which is the hardest point. So when you’re going through treatment you have access to everyone that you could possibly think of that you need. You have amazing breast care nurses, you have chemo nurses, you have a twenty-four hour helpline you have support from your oncologist, you know everything, you get. Then all of a sudden you’re done and that’s the hardest part because you’ve suddenly had these big warm, cuddly arms of the NHS wrapped around you for months and then they’re taken away from you. So the other thing is the general fear about it coming back and so counselling is due to start next week to basically go all through that.
00:45:00.15 Tracey Crouch:
The other thing, and I’ve always done this actually, I was reflecting on this in advance to this podcast, is the other thing is that whilst it was a crisis I always think about how it could be a lot worse and so it puts your own crisis into perspective. And I remember the first time I did this was when I was at university I had to have my first ever root canal surgery and I remember sitting in the waiting room of the dentist thinking, it could be worse I could be having a bollocking from professor Birkenshaw, who was the head of the law department who had a fierce reputation. And I kind of, I always now think that. If I’m scared or worried or anxious about something, I do go to the next level of ‘well it could be worse because it could be X’. And that again, that’s how I felt with chemo. I had minimal side effects so for me it could have been worse.
00:46:13.23 Andy Coulson:
You’ve also acted as a chemo buddy I think for others going throng that process. So that presumably as well, kind of being part of a shared experience, the most wretched of shared experiences I assume was also in its own way was a helpful exercise in perspective and trying to get to the right place on that.
00:46:42.00 Tracey Crouch:
Yeah, and other people are buddies to me. So people who’ve been through it before me have been my buddy so I’ve been able to talk to them. And I think one of the things about going public about the treatment and everything, the diagnosis and the treatment, was being able to remove some of the stigma around chemotherapy. And I didn’t know that I was going to be able to do that but I’ve never worn a wig for example. I never felt the need to. I didn’t for many women hair is their identity but actually I thought this was a really good opportunity to show that there was more to me than my hairstyle and I found it quite liberating to lose my hair.
00:47:35.09 Tracey Crouch:
I also, when I say to people who are about to start chemotherapy, you have to remember that every person’s experience of chemo is different. We have it in our heads, some picture, some image, that we must have seen, once upon a time, of somebody going through chemo and it’s not like that at all. And so whatever happens in terms of that individual’s side effects it will not be as bad as they thought it was going to be. Because our head somehow plays this awful, awful image of what it’s going to be and then it’s never that bad.
00:48:16.14 Andy Coulson:
So you found perspective. You clearly as you just described found positives. Did you find clarity as well, are you finding clarity through what is the most wretched type of crisis? Has it adjusted your view of the world?
00:48:36.11 Tracey Crouch:
I think so, yeah, absolutely. I had always thought about the importance of my family to me. I did recognise in the first lockdown, pre-diagnosis that perhaps my work-life balance was not as equal as it should be. I think diagnosis subsequent to lockdown, I think really pressed upon the importance of making sure that I spend more time with the family or certainly when I’m at home with the family, make the most of it. Because I think one of the things that politicians are absolutely dreadful at is turning their phone off and turning their emails off. You know, actually being fully focused on things at home because somehow we feel that we have to have everything bleeping away at us all the time because that’s the urgency of the job and all that sort of nonsense. And actually I’ve got really good, I’ve got into a really good habit of switching off my laptop on a Friday and not turning it back on until Monday like the rest of the world. And that doesn’t mean that job is any less 24/7 but you know it’s just about having the right levels of focus. So it has provided me with a bit of clarity.
00:49:57.14 Tracey Crouch:
I’ve also become really focused on policy areas around issues like wellbeing and how we need to kind of somehow get across to people that you can still be quite healthy and well and get cancer. Because again, I think we only see the statistics like if you smoke you’re X percent more likely to get cancer or if you drink more than government guidelines you’re going to get so and so disease or whatever. And actually we’re all susceptible to it it’s just that some people make it worse for themselves by smoking too much, drinking too much, eating too much and so on. And I think we need to have much more focus on what well-being means and how we can all improve our own well-being but then also acknowledge that we can still become quite poorly.
00:50:52.24 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, do you think that what we’ve been through collectively with the pandemic is going to cause a real change, potentially, in policy? I mean, you’ve argued for a change in the sort of structure of government, you think there should be a department of well-being. But do you think that obviously there’s the link between obesity and Covid, in terms of survival rates. Do you think that we are now ready to… because a lot of this stuff has been around in politics for a long while, right? I mean, you’ll remember in 2010 happy indexes and all that kind of stuff, a lot of it was being laughed at at that stage or at least kind of diminished. Do you think we’re now ready to realise that actually the NHS is there for people who are ill but let’s spend a bit of time trying to stop people from getting ill?
00:51:45.15 Tracey Crouch:
I’m pleased to say that the happy index still exists. It’s not called that anymore it’s the well-being index but it’s still there and rightly measuring forty-odd levels of different things that people put down to their own happiness. And I do think that’s important. But I do think we are moving in the right direction in terms of well-being. And for me I’d love to see a well-being budget, something that measures the health and wealth of the nation beyond GDP. And other countries are either looking at it or have done it. So New Zealand has done it and other countries like Scandinavian countries are looking at how they can measure well-being as part of looking at the overall productivity of the nation. And I think that’s what we should be doing.
00:52:41.02 Tracey Crouch:
I mean, we do it for animals, right? We sit there and say happy hens produce more eggs and yet we don’t actually sit there and think about how we could be doing this for humans. And for me, I know I’m at my most productive when I’m at my happiest. So it just doesn’t make sense. And if I’m feeling well then I’m feeling happy and I think that’s… it may sound airy-fairy and there are parts of the British media that would scoff at that but at the same time I think that we do need to start focusing on us as individuals and see how we can support them to get well.
00:53:21.24 Tracey Crouch:
And that doesn’t necessarily mean, by the way, having a… I’m not going to turn into the nation’s PE teacher and make everyone run a mile before work but it is actually about looking at individuals and how they can improve their own well-being and by the way that could be going to a museum, it could be joining some other ramblers, it could be reading a book. You know, these are all… we need to kind of think about how we can improve well-being across the country.
00:53:58.05 Andy Coulson:
It feels inevitable to me, Tracey, that you’re going to end up back in government. You turned it down, of course, in 2019. But you’ll be characteristically modest about it, I’m sure, but are you thinking at all about what might be down the track?
00:54:17.01 Tracey Crouch:
If the right job was offered then I would take it now. I think I’ve my reason for turning it down in 2019, although gosh, how fortuitous it turned out to be in terms of diagnosis, is I wanted to get my son settled in school. He was starting school in September after the reshuffle, I wanted to get him in and I wanted to get him settled and that’s happened now, it’s done. And so I’ve gone through this diagnosis, I feel well, I feel stronger and I’d like to do it but I don’t want to do it for the sake of it. So there’s more to life than walking around with a red box and I would happily carry that red box around if it’s something that I’m interested in doing.
00:55:08.03 Andy Coulson:
So we talked about how these experiences have sort of changed your perspective on life. Has being out of Westminster changed your perspective on politics?
00:55:19.10 Tracey Crouch:
No, not really because I’m still, we’re all still heavily involved in politics, even though we’re just not physically there. I’ve managed to work throughout my treatment and actually I’ve felt quite lucky, again, being able to be at home when others have had to go into work at difficult times and found it challenging because of various arguments in parliament at the time and so on. And so I’ve had the benefit through being clinically, extremely vulnerable of being excluded from some of that. I found that as well, again, it was completely fortuitous but during the 2016 referendum campaign I was on maternity leave. And I was able to avoid all the hideousness of what was happening in Westminster and watched the European referendum campaign unfold as a punter. And sometimes I think it’s really important for politicians to step away from the Westminster bubble and see politics as a punter rather than as politician.
00:56:31.04 Andy Coulson:
I think that’s one of your skills though Tracey, if you don’t mind me saying so, I think you had that before.
00:56:36.12 Tracey Crouch:
Yeah, I spend a lot of time with normal people though, that’s the thing, you know. I don’t, as I say, you will find me on a Saturday afternoon down the rugby club. You’ll find me on a Thursday evening in the pub and it’s… well not at the moment obviously, but…
00:56:55.24 Andy Coulson:
I was going to say, we may have to put a disclaimer on this podcast.
00:57:00.21 Tracey Crouch:
No, and I just talk to a lot of normal people and I live a normal life, I come from a normal background. I get uncomfortable in circumstances where it’s beyond what I’m naturally comfortable with. So all the glamorous events that I’ve been to in ballgowns and stuff like that it takes me out of my comfort zone. I’d be happy to have a pair of football shorts on underneath but it wouldn’t quite work with the dress. When I went to Buckingham Palace, I’ve met the Queen a few times and you can’t feel comfortable when you are meeting the Queen when thirty-five years ago you were climbing trees. But, yeah, just normal people.
00:57:51.22 Andy Coulson:
And do you think that when it inevitably happens, let’s continue on that basis, you’re around the cabinet table, almost certainly, what’s your view of where the operation is at the moment, where Number 10 is? It seems from my very distant perspective that things have calmed down a bit actually. Obviously they’ve got wind in the sails with the vaccine programme, which so far is going very well, we’ll see how that continues. But it seems as though, because throughout that horrible period of Brexit, that government is not quite so thin-skinned, not quite so tribal. Would you agree? Is that, when you think about the potential return, is that how you imagine it?
00:58:43.22 Tracey Crouch:
Yeah, I mean, I feel sorry for Boris Johnson to be honest with you. I think that he never would have thought that this was going to be the first eighteen months of his premiership. And talk about crisis, no one could have seen this coming and how, hindsight is wonderful, but I do think that decisions were made based on facts that were given at the time and so on. But then we’ve managed to in try political terms and party terms we’ve managed to add crises on top of it. And things that could have been avoided by proper conversation and discussion have then become a crisis in and of themselves.
00:59:34.24 Tracey Crouch:
So free school meals is a classic example. You know something that could have been nipped in the bud really quite early became a crisis because a celebrity footballer got involved. And rightly so and I think Marcus has done a great job and I wish more footballers would get involved in politics but that’s an aside. And then having dealt with that crisis instead of thinking ‘oh I know, let’s try and make sure we don’t have a crisis again over the same issue but a different half term’, we just bumbled on and then it came again. And then there was another crisis and you just think there was no sort of long term thinking about it.
01:00:19.20 Tracey Crouch:
And I just hope that those days have gone. That actually things are becoming a bit more settled that there’s a bit more focus, there’s a bit more understanding of where the public is at on some of these issues. Where sympathies lay with the public. And actually, I would say again, from conversations that I would have in my chemo sessions, you know with complete strangers on a ward, actually the vast majority of the public are very, very forgiving of Boris and really sympathetic to the decisions. You know people will say, ‘Well he may have got it wrong but hey, we didn’t know it was going to be like this. And no one’s ever faced a pandemic and so on.’ So actually I think he public are actually quite sympathetic to that. We just didn’t need to have the additional rows on top.
01:01:12.15 Andy Coulson:
Yeah, it think that’s absolutely right. And I think in terms of the kind of handling of the pandemic I think that’s exactly the right analysis. But there’s also I think it’s going to move very quickly to the recovery and those that are most badly affected. You know you’d love to see the government doing more for the kids who are going to get left behind here. Some of the most vulnerable. Thank you Tracey for your time. I really enjoyed the conversation. And I’m sure that the people listening to this too will have drawn the same conclusion as me that we need more people like you round that table in Downing Street, you don’t have to comment, I sincerely hope it happens. I absolutely love the idea of a cabinet member who says do you know what, whatever you do don’t put me on Any Questions or Question Time. Just please because I’ll have to tell the truth but of course that’s exactly what we need in politics, that’s exactly what we need.
01:02:21.07 Tracey Crouch:
Yeah, except the thing is it doesn’t always work out like that because one of the things about Jeremy Corbyn was that everyone was saying how authentic he was and he always told the truth when he was a backbencher and bla, bla, bla. And of course when you get into the top of politics your authenticity is sometimes taken away from you. And I always vowed to myself because I won the seat off Labour, I am still considered a marginal seat, even though I do have an 18,000 majority but I still consider it a marginal seat. I still think that one day I could lose my seat. And I don’t want to be any less of a person than I was when I came into politics. I don’t want politics to have changed who I am. And I want to still be a mum, a wife, somebody who still goes to the shop in their slippers occasionally. And I still want all that and I still want to go to Spurs and shout obscenities at the referee and all that sort of stuff. So I just don’t want to be a different person really.
01:03:33.19 Andy Coulson:
Well like I say, that’s why we need you in politics. I’m going to ask you for your crisis cures, three things that you’ve leant on during those tough times, can’t be another person so Harry Kane obviously not allowed on this occasion.
01:03:49.12 Tracey Crouch:
Although he did send me a nice message after I…
01:03:51.14 Andy Coulson:
So I gather, so I gather. That was a good day. So give me your three things please.
01:03:58.22 Tracey Crouch:
Football would definitely be one of them. Love it and it’s a real distraction although I don’t feel so relaxed by football when I’m actually in the stadium. I would say my allotment, or certainly outdoor space, somewhere where you can just go and reflect while being in nature I think is really important. And I find my allotment…
01:04:24.23 Andy Coulson:
Are you a good gardener?
01:04:26.10 Tracey Crouch:
No, dreadful but things seem to grow and we seem to eat from it but I don’t really know what I’m doing. And I’m currently supporting the school, I’ve given half my allotment to the local primary school and they keep on asking me all these questions and I really don’t know the answers because I literally just throw seeds in and hope that they grow. But I find actually my mind can completely empty of any stress or trouble when you’re sitting there basically digging over a bed or… well actually as I have been recently trying to find worms to put in other parts of the allotment.
01:05:11.04 Tracey Crouch:
And I think my third one is reading but particularly things like, I love reading children’s books. I like going back to a time where things were just simpler. And I found during chemotherapy I found it really hard to concentrate on really intense prose. So I’ve got lots of books, as you can imagine, political tomes of various things that are piling up waiting for me to read and I find them quite difficult to read and concentrate at the same time. Whereas dipping back into some old children’s books like Stig of the Dump, The Borrowers, Roald Dhal, Swallows and Amazons, they’re simpler times. And you can read a book in a couple of days or a day even. And I would find that I would, I read the Borrowers and I hadn’t thought about anything other than what was happening in the book. And it just takes you back to a pure time in I think all of our lives where the biggest worry we had is whether or not we were going to have Chicken Kiev for tea. And I would definitely recommend it to anyone, it’s not a stupid thing to do. You shouldn’t feel daft doing it. Pick up Stig of the Dump and just go and find a corner and relax.
01:06:43.15 Andy Coulson:
Yeah. Wonderful. Tracey, thank you again, we really appreciate it, it’s been great having you with us.
01:06:49.09 Tracey Crouch:
01:06:51.13 Andy Coulson:
I said in the intro to this conversation that Tracey was the kind of MP who restores your faith in politics and after an hour in her company I’m even more certain of that observation. What a fantastic straight forward and pragmatic woman. Seemingly devoid of the usual politician’s how will this play break on her conversation Tracey was so utterly authentic and genuine. From the reasoning behind her shock resignation from government through to the trauma of her cancer diagnosis Tracey showed herself to be the right kind of team player or as she put it brilliantly, I’m a Spurs fan who doesn’t stand up because they hate Arsenal.
01:07:30.16 Andy Coulson:
Tracey’s no nonsense approach to her cancer diagnosis last June, a focus on the positives, the importance of perspective, exercise and mindfulness I think were incredibly useful and of course from this week she’ll begin the professional counselling recognising that it’s often at the end of treatment that anxiety can really begin. My bet is that Tracey will be back in government pretty soon and it’s quite likely to be around the cabinet table. And I’m sure that that girl from Kent whose resilience began as a latchkey kid will do brilliantly. Why? Because I think she’s absolutely determined not to let politics change who she is or as she puts it, ‘I want to be a mum, a wife, someone who occasionally goes to the shop in their slippers and also someone who likes to shout obscenities at the referee.’ How fantastic.
01:08:23.00 Andy Coulson:
Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis, feel free to send us your feedback, you’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at crisiswhatcrisis.com. There are also links to our newsletter, Facebook page and Instagram. There are more useful conversations on the way soon and if you enjoyed this podcast please do give us a rating and a review. Thanks again.
01:08:56.13 End of transcription.