This article is from the March issue of Total Politics
This is Chloe Smith's first interview since the ‘hoo-hah’ surrounding her appointment as economic secretary to the Treasury late last year. It quickly becomes obvious that she's an intensely private person who does not particularly enjoy talking about herself.
She is surprisingly good fun, quick-witted and brimming with smiles and laughter. But her public image is rather more serious and robotic. As our interview progresses I understand why; there are two Chloes – and the joyous side of her character can't be contained by the more serious professional one.
Smith can still surprise. Within a minute of our chat beginning she has volunteered that she loves arts and crafts, being "a bit of an amateur sketcher".
"I love drawing, I absolutely love arts, I sketch a bit myself… life drawings," she volunteers. Taken by surprise, I blurt out: "What, naked people?". She quickly shoots back, "Yes. Not me... usually."
It's clearly something she enjoys, although she's not a member of a club or class. Still, certainly not something you would have predicted from the youngest government minister.
Perhaps we should, though. Her parents met at art school, her mother became a textiles teacher and her father a furniture designer and craftsman. Smith grew up with her brother in a happy house surrounded by her father’s handmade furniture. Her earliest memory is of wandering along a country lane picking blackberries. Her happy, settled upbringing allowed Smith to excel academically at state school in Norfolk, where she moved when aged three.
But more recently media stories have been less cheerful. Some have described it as character assassination, while others believe it is simply the rough and tumble of politics at the top table. For a small number in the Conservative Parliamentary Party, inexperienced but super-loyal Smith’s swift elevation to the Treasury has been hard to swallow. Smith responds to the criticism by being very careful not to upset her colleagues or to respond to the criticism. She was touched by the letters and emails of support she received on her promotion. She's aware that she has a lot to learn from those with great experience, and is happy to listen and learn, but in return, she says: “You’ve got to judge me on what I do. I can’t help what I look like or what age I am any more than anyone else can. Clearly, I’m young, and that always gives me something to prove. That’s what I’ve set out to do.”
Before she entered the rough and tumble of politics Smith spent time at Deloittes as a management consultant. And although she worked for about a year as part of Francis Maude’s implementation team, getting the Conservative Party ready for government, being thrust into the hurly-burly of a by-election was a bit of a shock when it came.
“It was one of those rather strange moments when the by-election was announced. I was sitting in an office, and Sky TV was on. A colleague came around the corner and said, ‘Have you seen this? This is the constituency where you're the candidate, isn’t it?’ I took one look, took a sort of a gulp and just got stuck in.”
The by-result in Norwich North suggests she did indeed get 'stuck in', although during the campaign, as is often the case with by-elections nowadays, unscrupulous political opponents put about rumours which were completely untrue.
Whilst Smith is understandably reticent about giving away too much about her private life, the jobs – MP, whip or economic secretary – are another matter. She loves them all with a sense of pride, and a genuine sense of excitement.
It can't have been easy for a 29-year-old to jump into such an important job, and privately she must have had considerable doubts about it when it was offered. She’d been in a lengthy school governors' meeting in her constituency, and on leaving had discovered a barrage of messages to call Downing Street. Calling from the car park, Smith then had to sit waiting with her thoughts for some time before the PM called back.
If she had doubts then, they have since dissolved in her enthusiasm to get things done: "I got offered the job on the Friday and went in on the Sunday for the first time. I was keen to get on with it – that's my hallmark. I wanted to get my head round everything, and decided that my approach of getting stuck in was the right one. I tried not to be overly daunted."
When I ask her about the qualities needed to be a Treasury minister, she replies, "You absolutely don’t need to be a chartered accountant,” and roars with laughter. She's referring to the reported conversation with the PM when he offered her the job. The story goes that after Cameron told Smith he'd like to offer her the post, she replied: "It’s a little daunting." The PM responded: "Not daunting, surely, for someone who was a chartered accountant?" She responded, "Actually, prime minister, I wasn’t an accountant. I was a management consultant in an accountancy firm."
When I ask her about her new brief, the words tumble out: "It's quite a role, but I'm really enjoying the job. The list of things I'm responsible for is stupidly long – sorry, I mean particularly long," she says with an enormous grin. "So far I've been dealing with Danny Alexander on a lot of things, such as the responsibility the Treasury has for child poverty and welfare. But, equally, there's been a lot of work alongside David Gauke, the exchequer secretary, on the Finance Bill."
Her ultimate boss in the Treasury is George Osborne and she likes the way he operates. "We meet regularly, and he's extremely clear about where he sees the country going, how to get the country back to prosperity, how to improve things. He's also extremely clear to work for in terms of priorities for the team." I talk to Smith as the latest GDP figures show a drop and there is no sign of a change in strategy. "There is no Plan B, certainly not," she says firmly, "we know Plan A is working."
No-one should be surprised by this show of loyalty. But there is little intellectual underpinning to Smith’s Conservatism; her views are based on personal experience. Rural Norfolk was not full of opportunities, and the young Chloe quickly learned that you had to be self-reliant and go out and make your opportunities.
When I ask her whether she has read any political books, her response is surprising: “I have, but by choice I would probably read fiction to relax. I’m a pragmatist – I would say I’m a centrist but a little to the left in the Conservative Party.” I ask her to explain further: “I’m very much a liberal on social things, but equally liberal in terms of money. I want to see people free to go off and find their own opportunities and succeed.”
Her voting record is 100 per cent loyal, and she doesn’t believe in creating artificial ideological divisions that she believes don’t really exist. “The government is going in the right direction, which means it gains my support and, crucially, that I'm proud to be both in government and a local MP. By supporting this government in the best interests of this country, I believe I'm also representing the best interests of my constituents and all those who voted Conservative,” she says with conviction.
Smith’s view of politics, her party, being an MP is modern and different – some would say it's a new sort of politics, less about doctrines and ideologies, and more about getting involved in communities, being an ambassador for politics and making step-by-step improvements that change lives. “Politics,” says Smith, “is about doing things in your community. It begins when two people stand together, because it’s about how you interact with others and how you work with local people. You’re in it to try and change things and make them happen.”
In many respects, it's pure ‘Cameroon’. It was, after all, David Cameron who attracted her to run for Parliament, although it was Gillian Shepherd who encouraged Smith to think of politics. They met while Smith was trying to set up a youth forum in Norfolk, and Shepherd was her local MP. Smith regards her as a mentor and “a very inspiring woman who continues to give me very sound advice on lots of things.”
A newspaper article quoted an acquaintance of Smith saying; "Without meaning to be bitchy, even as a teenager she seemed middle-aged and incredibly ambitious. She knew what she wanted and knew how to get it."
Smith retorts this is “pure fiction”.
When Cameron became leader, Smith became comfortable with the idea of becoming an MP. She felt his drive for modernisation of the Conservative Party and commitment to getting more women MPs were critical to her putting her name forward. “Being an MP was not a burning desire,” she says. “I had loosely thought about it, but, God, no, I wasn’t a political anorak. At University, I didn’t 'do' a great deal of politics – a couple of bits here and there, but I was drinking and dancing with the best of them and enjoyed it very much.”
Smith bridles at the view that her life has been limited by her career or ambition. “Yeah, I’ve achieved quite a lot, at an early age, that I’m very proud to be doing. But it’s only the split working site [between the Treasury and her constituency] and the hours that constrain a perfectly normal social life. I go down the pub, I go out dancing when I can squeeze in the time for that, and I have a wide range of friends.”
Stresses from the working week are normally taken out the badminton court in Norwich on a Friday night, where she has been known to turn the air blue (it was also known to happen occasionally while she was in the Whips’ Office).
Smith says she is not concerned about the coming years in government. Her attitude is to deal with what comes. She expands on her creed with a quote from The Sun that she apparently saw while getting fish and chips on New Year’s Eve. Another Chloe, “from Leeds or somewhere”, was on Page 3. Smith explains: “The news in brief said: 'Chloe could not believe Tesco put Easter eggs on sale the week before Christmas. She said, ‘They should take a leaf out of celebrated physicist Albert Einstein’s book; it was he who observed, 'I never think of the future, it comes soon enough.’”
It's a story that brings me neatly back to the subject of nudity and life drawing. I’m told that it's fold of flesh rather than rippling muscles that make drawing models interesting. Smith agrees, and explains that the pose can also be interesting, but in an art class you are really looking for curves and folds of flesh. So which celebrity would Chloe Smith like to draw? “Rafael Nadal would make an interesting model,” she says. I venture that it might be for his interesting folds of flesh? “No–" She grins. "–that would be a question of plain muscle.”
Rob Wilson is the Conservative MP for Reading East