West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock talks about his cabinet job, the heavyweight tasks ahead, and riding a winner at Newmarket
It’s a safe bet that the UK government has never before had a Cabinet minister who was trained to ride a racehorse by Frankie Dettori.
Or, for that matter, one who set a cricketing record by playing in the world’s most northerly match during a polar expedition.
Matt Hancock, the new Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, is not one to shirk a challenge inside or outside politics. So it is no surprise that following his promotion to the Cabinet in last week’s reshuffle the West Suffolk MP relishes the task ahead.
“I was delighted,” he said. “It’s a great privilege to serve as MP for West Suffolk, and if the Prime Minister asks you to do something on the national stage that’s terrific and an honour.”
He said his department covers “all the things that make life good” including the creative industries, sport, heritage, and cutting edge technology.
But while some aspects are icing on the cake, like seeing great shows and top sporting fixtures, others are heavy responsibilities. Also on his plate is the vast sprawl of the internet with such critical issues as protecting children, online bullying, and stamping out terrorist material.
Matt Hancock was elected to parliament in 2010 and became a junior minister for skills and enterprise three years later. Since then he has served in a range of ministerial roles, and spent 18 months as a minister in his current department before getting the top job.
“I’ve already covered most of the areas it is responsible for. Some are extremely enjoyable, like looking after the music industry. I have a really broad love of music. My own taste is more for pop ... everything from Skepta to Ed Sheeran.
“And I am loving the new song from Sigrid who I saw at Glastonbury in the summer. I recently took my kids to see the London Philharmonic playing Peer Gynt, which was wonderful.”
Early last week he was due at the Royal Opera House to see a production of Tosca.
“I go to the theatre as often as I can. I saw Hamilton (the rave-reviewed hip-hop musical) last week. I was also there to see how they are managing their ticketing ... ticket touts are another big issue we have to deal with.”
But it is the internet that will present one of his biggest challenges.
“We must make sure this wonderful technology is a power for good,” he said. “For all the challenges it brings, it is a massive source of information and opportunity.
“I want an internet that is free, but that freedom is not to trample and bully other people. We have struck that careful balance off-line over generations, and need to bring that to digital, too. It’s at the top of my priorities.”
He welcomed Facebook’s plans to prioritise friends and family posts over those from businesses, brands and media.
“I welcome the change that they have announced, and that Mark Zuckerberg has said he will spend this year trying to fix the problems on Facebook. The first stage of any solution is recognition, and now we have recognition I look forward to working with them to fix it.”
Making sure more people have access to faster broadband has long been one of his aims.
“I campaigned for better broadband before I was a minister ... and now the buck stops with me. In the modern world it’s so important for business and also socially.”
Another priority is supporting a free press, and he pledged to fight a House of Lords bid to further tighten regulations.
Peers voted on January 10 to go ahead with part two of the Leveson inquiry.
They also want newspapers not signed up to a state-supported regulator to pay both sides’ legal costs in data protection cases ... even if they win.
“We need to do all we can to support local media,” he said. “Unfortunately in my first few days in office the House of Lords has voted to make things more difficult. They tried it several times when I was a junior minister, and were roundly defeated, and we need to do that again.
“With the challenges of fake news we need a sustainable business model for high quality journalism. Local journalism underpins any community. If we have learned anything from the last couple of years it’s that you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.
“A free democracy can only succeed when the debate is based on objective facts. That’s true at local, national and international level.”
He does not believe Brexit will have an adverse impact on the arts.
“I think we are going to make a success of Brexit, and Britain has a uniquely global-facing culture. I have every confidence that our cultural life and creative industries are going to thrive.”
The sport part of his new job takes in two of his passions ... horse racing and cricket.
He is the only MP since the First World War to have won a horse race. His victory in the Blue Square Cavalry Charge at Newmarket in 2012 raised £10,000 for charity. How did he do it? “I had a very good horse, and Frankie Dettori trained me,” he said.
“The British Racing School had invited me in during apprentices’ week, and asked if I would like to ride a racehorse. Then around the corner came a van with a TV camera, it went on local TV, then someone from the racecourse phoned and asked me to ride in the race.
“I did a six month training programme. I had to lose two stone, and get a jockey licence.”
Matt is also a keen runner and describes himself as a mad-keen cricket fan.
He plays for the Lords and Commons team, and earned a mention in cricketing bible Wisden for playing in the most northerly-ever game.
“A friend who had been in the Special Forces wanted to go to the North Pole and asked me to join him. I arranged the cricket match as a way of getting sponsorship.
“I love a challenge. It was an extraordinary experience although I got frostbite and didn’t make it to the Pole.”
Matt, 39, was born in Chester, and has degrees from both Oxford and Cambridge.
“I wasn’t political at all at university. I ran the ball at my Oxford college – that was more my kind of thing.”
He worked briefly for his family’s software company – “I’ve always been a tech geek at heart” – then became an economist at the Bank of England.
His move into the world of politics came when then-shadow chancellor George Osborne, who he had met once at a party, asked him to work on Tory economic strategy.
“Working for him and David Cameron as part of a team putting together a plan for how we could turn the country around was incredibly enjoyable.”
Matt and his wife Martha, who have three children aged 11, nine and four, have just moved to a village between Haverhill and Bury.
“I do my best to keep my family out of the public eye – they didn’t choose to go into politics,” he said.
But he does let on that he was wearing a “Scream” mask, based on the famous painting, when he and Martha met at a Hallowe’en party.