Meet the female MPs alleviating Brexit woes with football: 'We don’t care what political party we’re from when we're playing'

Westminster MPs who have formed a women's football team gather in Parliament Square
Westminster MPs who have formed a women's football team gather in Parliament Square Credit: John Nguyen

Few would have succeeded in abating the excitement bubbling over from the group of Westminster MPs that had gathered in Parliament Square, sporting green football shirts over their normal clothes.

“I’m not sure how I feel having an SNP arm leaning on my shoulder,” muttered Tracey Crouch, Conservative MP for Chatham and Aylesford, as SNP member Hannah Bardell leaned on her parliamentary colleague for balance, simultaneously trapping a football under one foot.

Her comments sparked infectious laughter among her teammates, who all play for the UK parliamentary women’s football team.

Defying the political divide – and all footballing and fitness abilities – the women come together to kick a ball about in a celebration of cross-party unity. Despite an 8am training slot on a Tuesday - at an outdoor community 3G pitch in Waterloo – there is one constant, a jovial atmosphere from these sports enthusiasts.

Crouch was the forerunner; until 2011 she had turned out for the long-established men’s parliamentary team, when the FA took over the running of the 11-a-side team and barred the MP for Chatham and Aylesford from playing. When she was appointed Sports Minister in 2015, the irony of not being able to play in her own team seemed ludicrous.

Defying the political divide the MPS come together to kick a ball about in a celebration of cross-party unity Credit: John Nguyen

In response, there were a number of attempts to start a women’s side, but it was only in March last year that Jo Tanner, a communications strategist based at Westminster, eventually set up a team. Tanner enlisted the help of the FA to bring the Women’s FA Cup into Parliament as part of a recruitment drive to grow interest among women working across different sectors in parliament, including MPs, researchers and journalists. The team has been together ever since. Each week they are put through their paces with fitness drills and skills-based activities by dedicated coaches from the Chelsea Foundation, a charitable arm of the Premier League football club.

Numbers might remain modest – anywhere from eight to 16 turn out on a weekly basis – but few would have predicted the advent of this lobby parliamentary football side at one of the most fractured times in a generation, transcending the cauldron of instability spewed up by Brexit.

“One of the trainers – and I do mean this affectionately – described us as a bunch of six-year-olds running after the ball, because we all just ran in one direction and would sort of barge into each other,” quipped Tanner, whose company, Inhouse Communications, funds the team’s iconic parliamentary strip. “There were a lot of confidence issues at first. Women had concerns about whether they were fast enough or had the right ball skills.”

Many of these women grew up in an era where girl’s football was banned, if not frowned upon, as Crouch, the former sports and civil society minister, can easily recall.

Alison_McGovern Tracey Crouch, Hannah Bardell, Louise Haigh and Stephaine Peacock in the chamber Credit: Twitter

A sporty child, she regularly threw jumpers down on the ground as makeshift goalposts out in the streets, but it was not until her student days at the University of Hull when she played her first competitive match.

“Sport is a great leveller,” said Crouch. “When we’re playing football, we don’t care what political party or what background we’re from. We’re just kicking a ball around and having fun.”

The footballing journey of SNP MP Bardell follows a similar narrative. Having always been, “that kid who kicked a ball about in the back field”, she only started playing the game properly in adulthood for the University of Stirling’s women’s team, where she rubbed shoulders with goalkeeper Gemma Fay, whose 200 caps for Scotland make her the most-capped player – male or female – of the national side.

It was on the eve of the 100th anniversary since Parliament passed an act allowing women to be elected as MPs that this start-up football outfit earned their first victory.

The team had been due to play their first-ever fixture against social veteran team Crawley Old Girls, but the match was called off after clashing with a series of Brexit votes. Not to be dispirited, five members of the group decided to pose for a photo in the chamber after the sitting was adjourned.

Decked out in the green of their parliamentary football shirts, which offered a refreshing shade of verdure against the tired Commons’ benches, Bardell was then filmed performing keepy-uppies in the iconic setting.

The video, which the Livingston MP later posted on social media and now refers to as “keepy-uppy gate” – went viral overnight and immediately drew waves of condemnation and adulation akin to those frothed by Leave and Remain camps. Speaker John Bercow was among those swiftly to reprimand the group and he later received letters of apology from all, bar the orchestrator of the kickabout.

Bardell refused to show any remorse for showing off her footballing skills, instead claiming it embodied a positive advert for women’s sport against a fractured political backdrop.

“It was about opening up politics a little bit and having some fun – because there’s not a lot of fun in the political discourse at the moment,” said Bardell.

“I had a lot of people who said to me it was disrespectful, but it got people talking not just about women’s sport, but about Parliament and it reached an audience which it wouldn’t have necessarily have normally reached.

“We might disagree on many things politically, but the one thing we do agree on is that we all enjoy playing sport and we want women’s sport to get a much higher profile.”

Perhaps the best testament of the team’s unifying power Bardell speaks of can be found in the all-party parliamentary group on social care that Conservative MP Gillian Keegan, one of the older members of the team, set up with Labour team-mate Louise Haigh this year.

While they are yet to play their first fixture, these women will take their burgeoning football careers abroad next month when several members of the parliamentary side – enough to make a starting XI – will head to Lyon to participate in the biggest football match ever played on earth.

Organised by Equal Playing Field, a non-profit body which seeks to challenge the inequalities women face in sport and particularly in football, the initiative will see 3,500 people play a football match over five days. Each team must have at least seven females as a way of championing the belief that sport is for all.

It is a mantra which another member of the team, Rosena Allin-Khan, in her capacity as shadow sports minister, is determined to keep at the forefront of her political career.

“We’re women who all love sport and love having a good time while exercising with our mates. That’s what it all boils down to,” the Labour MP for Tooting said.

“Most importantly, it’s really good for mental health. We have very stressful jobs, we come under a lot of strain and it’s really good for our mental wellbeing to have a group of friends to exercise with.”

For Keegan, too, the sport provides a release from the stresses of the day job. Her message to other women is simple: it is never too late to give sport a go. “Being part of this team has taken 20 years off my age. Running around in a football shirt on a Tuesday morning is something I didn’t expect to be doing in my fifties,” said the Chichester MP.

“This takes me way out of my comfort zone but my experience shows when you do that, good things happen. What I’m most concerned about is breaking something.”