Like many of his generation, the former Labour junior minister Tom Pendry, who has died aged 88, was unlucky that after his election to parliament in 1970 his party was in opposition for all but five of the years until 1997. By the time Tony Blair then swept into office, Pendry was 63 and adjudged too old for the vibrant, zippy image of the new government heading into the millennium.
He had spent six years as a Labour whip in the 1970s, three of them in government, and a year as a parliamentary undersecretary in the Northern Ireland Office (as what was known as the “statutory Roman Catholic”) until 1979, but would later find his metier in 1992 when he became shadow sports minister. His lifelong enthusiasm for boxing and football and myriad connections in the sporting world had led him confidently to anticipate appointment to the same post in government when the opportunity arose five years later.
Blair had been delighted when Pendry persuaded the then manager of Newcastle United, Kevin Keegan, to speak at a packed fringe meeting at the 1995 Labour conference (“New Labour, New Britain, Newcastle”, as one commentator put it) but the MP underestimated the ruthlessness of his new party leader. Pendry bitterly resented the considerable personal embarrassment of his rejection as the choice of sports minister, in favour of Tony Banks, and was only partly mollified when Blair made him a member of the Privy Council in 2000 in compensation and then offered him a seat in the House of Lords after the 2001 general election.
The status conferred by membership of the upper house nevertheless provided Pendry with an appropriate backcloth for his subsequent role as president of the Football Foundation, a post to which he was appointed in 2003, having previously served as chairman of the organisation from 1999. A further well-paid recompense was his chairmanship of the government-funded Football Trust from 1997 until 1999, while any remaining hurt pride was restored in 2018 when Stalybridge Celtic FC in his former constituency named the Lord Tom Pendry stand as a personal tribute.
An outgoing, assertive, self-confident politician, Pendry wore brightly coloured shirts with contrasting white collars and loved any sort of public endorsement by celebrity figures. He was born in Broadstairs, in Kent - in the same street, he would point out in his 2016 autobiography, Taking It on the Chin, as the Conservative prime minister Edward Heath. He would also claim to have persuaded Blair to pursue a political career over lunch in the Gay Hussar, the former London restaurant that once served as the Labour party’s canteen. The two men first met through the actor Tony Booth, Pendry’s constituent in Manchester and father of Blair’s wife, Cherie.
Pendry entered politics through the trade union movement, having worked as an official for the National Union of Public Employees for 10 years from 1960. He was a member of the former Paddington borough council (1962-65), chaired Derby Labour party when he moved to the city in 1966 and secured union sponsorship for the constituency of Stalybridge and Hyde, which he won in eight successive general elections. His “forthright” maiden speech – as it was greeted by the Conservative MP who spoke after him in the debate – was about the difficult industrial relations of 1970, a portent for the state of affairs that four years later would bring down the Heath government.
Pendry proved a busy and diligent MP, often involved with high-profile issues, particularly on sporting matters, such as football hooliganism and crowd control at sports grounds. He was also a fervent opponent of abortion, which attracted criticism from some of his female MP colleagues.
Once he spent five hours in prison in 1987 visiting Ian Brady, the Moors murderer, trying to persuade him to reveal the undisclosed grave of one of the victims. He was particularly proud of having inadvertently dislocated his shoulder when showing off his boxing skills to Muhammad Ali. He also had dealings with Dr Harold Shipman, who complained to his MP – Pendry – about the difficulties he had encountered in securing adequate supplies of drugs. This was before it emerged during Shipman’s subsequent trial in 1998 that he had used drugs to murder at least 15 of his patients.
When the Thatcher government took office in 1979, Pendry remained an opposition spokesman on Northern Ireland for two years and from 1981 until 1983 was part of John Prescott’s team on regional affairs and devolution. From 1987 to 1992 he was a member of the select committees on environment and members’ interests. He was a founder member and chairman of the all-party football group, and ran the House of Commons football team.
Tom was one of five sons born to Leonard Pendry, a lecturer, and his wife Elizabeth (nee Hughes), who had been raised in the Labour movement in Durham and sought to pass on her political aspirations to her children. Tom went to Roman Catholic primary schools in Ramsgate, Staffordshire and Tyneside, where he was evacuated during the second world war, and then the former St Augustine’s Abbey school in Ramsgate, where he played football for Kent schools. He joined the Labour party aged 15 and spent two years on national service with the RAF at Cape Collinson camp in Hong Kong. On returning to the UK he studied politics at the Catholic Workers’ College (later known as Plater College) in Oxford, and boxed for Oxford University.
In 1966 Pendry married Moira Smith, a Labour councillor. They had two children, Dominic and Fiona, who survive him. He separated from Moira in 1983 and she died in 2019.
• Thomas Pendry, Lord Pendry, politician, born 10 June 1934; died 26 February 2023