ID: So what's it like having your freedom back?
JS: After 10 years as a minister it's very strange in one way. The first normal Saturday when I woke up without a red box appearing on my doorstep was very weird but at the same time it's what I wanted when I made the decision.
You've been in government since 1999, now you're not and you have your life back. Does it slightly horrify you, all the things that you know now that you missed out on while you were a minister?
Oh, it doesn't horrify me. Somebody said to me just the other day ‘if you knew everything that was going to happen to you, including the bad bits in the last six months, would you still have done it?' And I said ‘without doubt, yes'.
Do you think it's a weakness of our political system that there is no kind of career path planning at all and that people are plonked into jobs, sometimes for absolutely no reason?
Yes, if I ever describe the process of becoming a minister - moving from one ministerial job to another - to somebody in almost any other job outside they think it is, frankly, pretty dysfunctional in the way that it works. That's not just this government... To be fair, Gordon had talked to me about whether or not I wanted to do a different job but you have to get to a pretty senior position in government - and you have to be pretty powerful as hell - before you can even express a view, let alone expect to influence where you go. I think we should have been better trained. I think there should be more induction. There's more now than when I started as a minister but it's still not enough. I think there should be more emphasis given to supporting ministers more generally in terms of developing the skills needed to lead big departments, for example. When I became Home Secretary, I'd never run a major organisation. I hope I did a good job but if I did it was more by luck than by any kind of development of those skills.
When you were appointed Home Secretary, did you think ‘Oh my God, this is the big time now, am I up to this?'
Well, every single time that I was appointed to a ministerial job I thought that, Iain. [laughs] I didn't sleep for a week in 1999 when I got my first ministerial job.
Yes but you admit it. Most politicians wouldn't admit that...
No, I think there is something in a politician's psyche, that it's seen as a bit of a weakness to admit any kind of self-doubt.
Please note, I didn't admit it at the time, though, did I! [laughs]
No, well, you had a bit of a baptism of fire so it probably wouldn't have been a good idea! Going back to your first government position - education. Having been a teacher, was that the job that you really wanted or did you feel ‘I was only given that as I had been a teacher'?
If you had asked me what job I didn't want, it would be to have gone into education and been typecast as an ex-teacher. I had spent a year on the Treasury Select Committee, and I'd done that explicitly because I didn't want to be typecast as an ex-teacher. Having said that, as soon as I started doing it, I absolutely loved it. It was a fantastic job, one of the reasons was because of the people I was working with - Minster of State Estelle Morris and Secretary of State David Blunkett. That was a fantastic team to be working in.
It's an interesting point you make about the team because if you compare that team to some of the ones that there are now, you get the feeling that - and I think this happens to all governments when they get a certain point - there's just no one else to promote. I think Gordon Brown's problem in his last reshuffle was that that meant at the minister of state level there wasn't the level of talent that Tony Blair had in those days and this happened to the Conservatives as well in the 1990s.
It's part of the reason, as I said, not only for thinking about how you train people when they become ministers, but perhaps to think about how you develop that talent among your back benchers, for example. We've only ever dipped our toe into the net. When I was chief whip it was one of the things I wanted to develop and we were never able to do that, but I think you need to acknowledge that you are managing your biggest asset, people, and you need to keep replenishing talent. There is no idea that in your parliamentary party you should be managing them, supporting them, trying to bring on talent, giving people projects to do, succession planning, the sorts of things that would be basic in any other workplace. None of that goes on. I'm not naive but I think there is more that we can do.
You were chief whip for just over a year.
An interesting year though! [laughs]
I would have thought you were the most unlikely chief whip in the history of chief whippery.
Well, I think you've got to be a bit of a bastard and I don't think of you as being a bit of a bastard.
That's because you've got a very, dare I say it, traditional view of how you manage people.
No, actually I haven't, but I've got a traditional view of what the chief whip's role is.
My experience from 1997 was that people felt they had to behave if they wanted to get on but that wasn't actually the way that chief whip Nick Brown behaved. There are now too many people who have had a ministerial job and are out of it, not interested, or who are a bit semi-detached from the government. You've got to find other ways to handle them. I think the reason Tony Blair asked me to do it was because I had done the education bit, I'd done quite a bit of what was the handling of difficult issues, I think that's why he chose me. I got the job in May 2006 straight after the local elections. We hadn't done very well. There were already questions about how long Tony was going to stay. So I had that run up to the summer, which is what I suppose you call the calm section. Then we had all of the summer difficulties [laughs], as I call it.
[Laughing] Tom Watson visiting Gordon Brown with presents, that sort of thing...
Yes. All of those things, baltis and goodness knows what else. After that, the job was to calm people down when they eventually came back to Parliament and then effectively manage a transition from one prime minister to another. I quite often say about my time as chief whip that although I never lost a vote, I did lose the Prime Minister!
Do you think part of the problem with our political system is that the government payroll vote is just too big? Why has Peter Mandelson got 11 ministers in a department that the Liberal Democrats think should be abolished because it doesn't do much? Could we not reduce the number of ministers?
That's two separate questions. Could we reduce the number of ministers? It's easy for me to say that now after 10 years as a minister, but probably yes. I think in some departments there are people without an enormous amount to do, but parliamentary under-secretaries, ministers of state in all of the departments I've ever been in, big spending departments, those with a big lobby or a lot of stakeholders, have to work incredibly hard doing the basic stuff of government. There has been a very interesting history at the DTI, for example, which had been pretty well downgraded, with the Treasury always wanting to take over quite a lot of its responsibilities. It has now been well and truly reinstated as a leading department. I think it makes sense if what you're doing is making an argument that ‘in order to get through the recession we need to build for the future'. You need a department that has a more active industrial policy and ensuring that the innovation and higher education links are there. Plus Peter Mandelson is an important and powerful politician...
He's the new Chancellor...
I'm not sure that's true [laughs]. He's certainly the person who the Prime Minister looks to much more broadly than simply his brief. Good, I say. One thing we know about Peter is that he is a consummate political strategist and communicator and the fact that the Prime Minister brought him back into government last year lifted everyone, even those of my colleagues who either don't like him or who feign to dislike him. I think even they thought ‘actually this is pretty much a masterstroke'.
Well, certainly the opposition thought that and presumably as a Blairite you welcomed it from that point of view.
I did. [smile, followed by laughter.]
When you first heard on your first day in the job about the terror bombs, what was your first reaction? Apart from ‘oh, shit...'
I'm not sure I understood, I'm ashamed to say, when I first heard it, quite how serious it was. When somebody rings you up and they say ‘a car has been found in Haymarket and it seems like it might have been set up to explode', your first reaction is ‘oh, that's interesting'. You then think ‘well, now I'm Home Secretary, so I have responsibility for that'. The point at which I felt a bit of cold run through my veins was on the Saturday in the office when the Jeep ran into Glasgow Airport. Even though we knew that there were other people involved, that they were travelling up to Scotland, at that point you ask yourself, ‘how big is this? Are there more? Are they going to be more successful? Is it getting out of control? Do we actually know the extent of what's going on?'
Did you realise that your performance in the media over that 48 hours was going to be absolutely crucial in the way people viewed you as Home Secretary in the future?
No, I was absolutely amazed that they were surprised that I was calm. What did they think I was going to do? Come running out of Downing Street shouting ‘don't panic, don't panic!' [laughs]. I did think I've got to get this right because I was the Home Secretary and everybody expected me to know what was going on; be able to explain what we were doing to keep them safe. That was the mindset that I started the job with and though that was tested over the weekend, it didn't feel difficult at the time - I wasn't going to start screaming or crying or saying it was all too difficult.
Why do you think Gordon Brown appointed you?
I think he wanted someone who he felt was able to communicate in a reasonably down-toearth way about issues that really are up among the top three that people are concerned about, like crime and immigration. I think he wanted - and he was right to want this, incidentally - women right at the very top of government. I hope he trusted me and thought I would be loyal and supportive and I think I have been.
There was the theory at the time that it might signal a change in policy in the Home Office, but actually you carried on the policies of Blunkett, Reid and what I would describe as fairly authoritarian polices with ID cards and 42-days detention. Were you not tempted to change tack with a new prime minister and new government?
I believe in those things - the ID cards and 42 days. One person's authoritarianism becomes another's emphasis on supporting those who are actually least able to protect themselves. I think I did change style, not only by being a woman but also in the same way as I wasn't an authoritarian chief whip. Helena Kennedy said to me the other day something about the water in the Home Office that turns you all authoritarian, but actually I think it's something about knowing the threats out there and your responsibility that makes you want to do everything that you can to protect people. I've always been pretty - to use your word - authoritarian.
I never felt your heart was really in 42 days. You must have realised the opposition within the Labour Party?
We did compromise in various places. In fact, I arguably conceded too much and actually made what we were trying to do less clear to people. I still believe that there will come a time when an investigation will run out of time. But we couldn't convince the people that we needed it. Having said that, we won it in the Commons.
You mean by bribing the DUP...
No, there was no bribery involved, and don't forget we had to get quite a lot of our people. That was hard work!
I know one Labour MP who was offered any committee membership he wanted by Gordon Brown, but everyone said ‘oh no, nothing was offered to anyone at all'...
Is he on the committee?
I couldn't possibly say.
I'm sure he's not.
We all know these things go on and it's what happens in politics, but to maintain this facade that nothing was offered to the DUP or rebel Labour MPs just won't wash.
I didn't offer anything. I was solely concerned in making the argument and making concessions where necessary to reflect people's understandable concerns, and to make it acceptable. I think that we did do that, although I think we overcomplicated it. It was clear that it wasn't going to get through the Lords and that was the point at which we conceded. But we got it through the Commons, where people thought we wouldn't.
And you got rid of David Davis at the same time...
Absolutely! David Davis is a talented politician but he made his whole raison d'etre to get rid of home secretaries. Well, he didn't get rid of me... In fact, I got rid of three Tory shadow home secretaries.
The Damian Green issue is a period which a lot of people thought of as the low point in your time as Home Secretary. Looking back on that now, do you think you should have been told about his arrest? John Reid certainly says that he would have been told if he was Home Secretary and Michael Howard agrees. Why do you disagree?
Interestingly, the select committee said that they didn't think home secretaries should be told. John was in a similar situation during the cash for honours inquiry and I don't think he was told when the Prime Minister was going to be questioned or others were going to be arrested. Sometimes there's a little bit of rewriting of history. What did these former home secretaries think they would have done had they been told? I often ask myself this. They said, ‘we would have asked questions'. Well, frankly, as a minister if I ask questions it's not only because I want an answer, it's because I want something done. If I had asked if they were sure they were doing the right thing I would have expected somebody to take some action on it. But it would have been wrong for a Home Secretary to interfere in the case. Part of me is frustrated that I didn't know, but I think it would have been more diffi cult to know and not to take action, or to know and take action because that would have been wrong as well.
Thinking back on the whole thing now, what went wrong?
I don't think they quite understood the political significance of arresting a senior opposition politician and doing it in Parliament.
What does that say about the police, then?
It says that they are not sufficiently savvy when it comes to political matters.
Do you think Damian Green is owed an apology?
Drugs policy has been a disaster for years, hasn't it? We have more drugs on our streets now than ever before.
No we don't. What we have is less drug use in both adults and young people - it might not be the perceived wisdom, but all the research in all the surveys suggested that that's the case. We have massively more people going through drug treatment. It's a fair criticism that we focused, to begin with, on getting people into treatment as opposed to getting them successfully out of the other end and back into life. I think we are doing better on that now.
Would you say that the last few months have been the worst of your political career? Has there been any time in the last few months when you've thought, why do I bother?
Yes, in the middle of the night, most nights. If your reputation and family life and career were being dragged through the mud then you wouldn't be a human being if you didn't lose sleep over it.
Describe on a human level what it is like being at the centre of a media storm, not just for a few days but for a sustained period.
Horrible. It's probably even worse for the people around you, because while I was still Home Secretary I was reasonably cocooned. You've got a job to get on with, you've got civil servants and advisers around you and, because you're Home Secretary, you don't generally - though I sometimes still did - go to the supermarket an awful lot. However, you can't open a newspaper without seeing stories about yourself. I think the scale of it was brought home to me when I was sat one night with my sister. I said that it had been an awful day, and I didn't want to watch the news. Instead, we turned over to the comedy quiz programme chaired by John Sergeant, which started with ‘welcome to the programme where people get sticky and uncomfortable, just like Jacqui Smith's husband'. I can laugh about it now but it was one of those moments when I thought that I wouldn't ever get away from it. I felt I would have it hung around my neck, and that's part of the reason why I had to resign. The other thing that was deeply frustrating about it was that I knew the things we needed to do as a government in order to stand a chance of winning the next election: which were convince people that we can tackle crime and antisocial behaviour and that we could control immigration. That's the job of the Home Secretary and that's what the Prime Minister wanted me to do, particularly in terms of being able to get out and talk to people. I couldn't do that because every time I did interviews I had to spend two-thirds of the time talking about expenses.
Had all that not happened then you would still be Home Secretary. You wouldn't have resigned, would you?
That's a pretty heavy price to pay. To a person in the street it was ludicrous that you were claiming your home in Redditch as a second home.
I had a choice in the matter but I had followed the rules. I had sought advice. I had lived with my sister since 1997. I wasn't in a box room up the top of the house with a shelf in the fridge if I was lucky - it wasn't as it was characterised.
No, but your main home has to be where your husband and kids are. It's just logic, isn't it?
Well, this is the interesting thing. I thought it was strange that you could have a main home that wasn't where your family lived. That was why I wrote to the fees offi ce to ask if they could clarify for me that your main home isn't where your kids live. The other problem with that, of course, is that I did have to make a decision. So when I became a minister, my husband and I sat down and we discussed the fact that I was going to be spending all this time in London. I did then make the explicit decision that my main home was going to be different to where our family home was. I stuck by the rules, I never flipped. I thought that I had done the right thing both by the spirit, and by the letter, of the rules. Hopefully within the next few weeks the commissioner will determine whether or not I was...
But you did commit the heinous crime of buying an 88p bath plug. Is that something you bitterly regret and have apologised to the nation for?
Somebody, an MP who is also an accountant, said to me the other day ‘what the hell were you doing putting in such detailed receipts?' I thought it was a good idea to be transparent, putting in the receipts which of course included that 88p bath plug...
What do you think it says about politics or people's perception of politicians that it is actually the comparatively small things that people really got angry about?
I can understand that, because it just looks piddling, and like you are in it for everything you can get out of it. We shouldn't have had a system in which you could claim for all of those little things and in which so much discretion was necessary, because then you can always identify the thing that, on its own, looks ridiculous. One of the things I regret is we didn't grasp this earlier. I can remember us vaguely discussing the fact that the accommodation allowance didn't really make sense when I was chief whip and Jack Straw was leader of the House. We discussed whether perhaps this was the time when we should just increase MPs' salaries. I can remember thinking that it wasn't a priority for my constituents and it wasn't a priority for me to make that kind of reform - it's not something that people were worried about. Well, I was wrong.
If Sir Christopher Kelly came out and said we are going to do away with some of these allowances and put MPs' pay up to 95 grand or something, do you think the public would stand for it? I don't think they would, would they?
They might not, but I think it is probably the only answer.
When you found out about this film package did you think ‘that's it'?
Can I ask you what you said to your husband?
‘I'm going to have to resign' was the first thing I said. I then had to go into a meeting which was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. However, it was the Friday before the G20 and people said to me - not the Prime Minister, you understand - that they didn't think the Prime Minister or the government were going to thank me for resigning just before the G20 which was so important for the government and so important for the Prime Minister. That and I suppose a certain amount of inertia meant that I didn't resign at that particular point, but it more than crossed my mind, I have to say. I felt the situation would be exactly as it is, which is that people would be sympathetic to me but they would always remember it, and that this would make it diffi cult for me to get on with the job that I needed to do.
What does the future hold for you? You have a very marginal seat, and if the polls are right, you're stuffed. You're defi nitely standing then?
You wouldn't be human if you didn't contemplate defeat...
Well, I've contemplated defeat at every election since 1997. It's a pretty straightforward Labour-Tory marginal that becomes more difficult in the next election because of boundary changes, so I have always operated on the basis that the next election will be my last. To that extent it's nothing new. I'm not out applying for jobs, put it that way, because you've got to be in it to win it.
In the unlikely event that Labour wins the next election, would you want to go back into government?
That's a straight answer! Were you angry with Hazel Blears, doing what she did?
Hazel is one of my best friends in Parliament so on any occasion when I have been angry with her I have got over it pretty quickly.
She was clearly annoyed at what she felt was a briefing operation against her from No 10. They were accusing her of leaking your departure. It was astonishing that a cabinet minister would resign the day before important elections.
She's been very hard done by. One of the problems of this whole expenses thing is that the pain has not necessarily fallen where it should have.
You mean that the laws of natural justice have gone out the window?
And people feel hard done by, and with some justification in some cases.
Are you going to write a book?
I'm not going to write my memoirs, because if you want to make any money out of them you have to bad-mouth your colleagues. If there's one thing I've always been it's a team player and I'm not willing to do that.
You've worked with two prime ministers, both of whom are obviously completely different characters. Caroline Flint accused Gordon Brown of a lot of things when she resigned. She made a lot of allegations about the way he conducts government and said she felt women were excluded from his circle. Did you ever feel any of that?
I think because I was Home Secretary I wouldn't have done. I had quite a big job to do and Gordon was always willing to listen to me. I didn't have an input into broader government policy apart from what happened around the cabinet table, but he was always willing to listen to me about Home Office stuff and change his views on occasion if we disagreed. I wouldn't have any complaints. I thought Caroline was badly done by and I think that almost had more to do with distrust by people around Gordon than it had to do with her gender. I think the trouble was that for some people if you got on the wrong side you could never get on the right side. You need to be more inclusive, because you're the prime minister and you've got to bring in all sorts of people and not test their loyalty in a way that means they're almost set up to fail.
Is he too tribal? Even the hard left found it almost impossible to dislike Tony Blair on a personal level. He had that magnetic personality that enabled him to draw people in and get them to do things that maybe they wouldn't normally have done and Gordon Brown just doesn't quite have that.
He does one-to-one. The thing about Tony is that he could do it through the TV, in a meeting, in a Q&A and one-to-one, although he was more powerful in a larger group than in a smaller group. Gordon is very different. If you're on a one-to-one with Gordon Brown he is more relaxed, more personable, clearer in his thinking - but not in an aggressive way. He communicates with you really well. If you could just bottle that and use it for the forms of communication that you need to use now...
Would you ever take on an outside interest while an MP?
It seems at the moment that it's the new thing to beat politicians with and it's a myth that it's just Tories - you don't see anything wrong with taking on outside interests?
Well, over the last 10 years I've had three jobs, effectively, and I think I've done them pretty successfully and I haven't let my constituents down. That's being minister, being a constituency MP, and being a mum. I've probably done the last one worst of all really... If you're organised I don't think it's impossible to do other things as well. I'm not averse to people doing jobs alongside being an MP and I think there's a certain amount of double standards between the idea that it's ok to do interviews and write books but not ok to be in business.
You said, of those jobs, that you were the worst at being a parent. Do you really think that, and if so, do you have any regrets that you've spent so much time in politics?
It was partly flippant. I don't think I've been a bad parent. Although I haven't been a very ‘there' parent I've been there more than a lot of dads in similar situations, probably. However, it's the thing that I've missed out on because the kids live in Redditch and there have been times when I haven't been there enough for them and I haven't been able to attend events. When my 11-year-old says to me - because they knew I was going to resign - he said ‘mum, when you are not Home Secretary any more what does that mean? Does it mean that when we go on holiday you won't be on the phone so much?' and I said ‘yeah that's just about what it means'. He's never known any different because he was born in 1998, so I've been an MP or minister most of his life. I don't think there are permanent scars - or I hope there are not.
Jack Bauer or James Bond?
What makes you laugh?
My kids, TV, my colleagues - sometimes for the wrong reasons. Steven Pound is the funniest Labour MP
What book are you reading?
Kate Atkinson's When Will There Be Good News?
Girls Aloud, it was brilliant
Most hated politician?
Most formidable opponent?
Most romantic thing you've ever done?
Probably not making my husband sleep on the sofa in the last six months
The view of Harlech beach, from just above it, near where our caravan is
One word to describe Tony Blair?
One word to describe Gordon Brown?
Equally brilliant [laughs]