Greasy Pole: Jeremy Spanks the Baby
Every so often the political firmament witnesses the emergence of a Rising Star, suitably welcomed by the party leaders as evidence of their resolve to bring fresh minds with new ideas to their tortured deliberations. For the Rising Star as well, it can be exciting, with hardened journalists pursuing them for their behind-the-doors revelations on the latest Cabinet scandal, the anguish of rivals left beneath them as they ascend the Greasy Pole and, as climax to all this, assumptions about record sales for an audaciously revealing volume of memoirs. And of course there would be the quivering excitement from the terror of television appearances fending off a notoriously ruthless interviewer while defending government policies in some current emergency.
Conservative MP for North Norwich, Chloe Smith, came into the Commons in July 2009 as a Rising Star and, aged 27, the Baby of the House. She took the seat previously held by Labour’s Ian Gibson, who resigned over irregularities exposed in his expense claims. Fresh-faced as a member of the school hockey team, flashing a wide, ready smile, Smith may have been a relief to the Norwich voters after the tawdry scandal of the fiddling by those outworn parliamentary manipulators. She held the seat at the 2010 election and, after a spell as a Conservative whip, was abruptly elevated to Economic Secretary to the Treasury – in fact benefiting from another scandal, that of Tory Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, who had to resign over his relationship to his ‘adviser’ Adam Werrity. Among the resentful mutterings of disappointed rivals (“inexperienced but super loyal” was one grouse) there were suggestions that perhaps Smith’s promotion was intended to pacify women voters after the cuts in Child Benefit rather than through any merits of hers. In fact, at the time the Prime Minister, Cameron, was under the impression that she was a Chartered Accountant – which seemed to be a recommendation to him on the theory that anyone qualified in that way was sure to be able to control and direct capitalism into an ordered, beneficial society – something his government was clearly unable to do. In any case, when Smith owned up to him that she was not an accountant he dismissed this as irrelevant, and with the words, “never mind!” he welcomed her into his Cabinet.
Safely on the Front Bench, Smith had a name – the Ice Maiden – which she earned for her coolness under the kind of pressures which ministers are expected to meet pretty well daily. This was pretty seductive stuff and it may have persuaded her to put herself forward for an assignment which many of her colleagues would have gone to some lengths to avoid. This came when the government announced that it would postpone a rise in fuel tax the day after insisting that it would impose it. The move was hailed as yet another policy U-turn, symptoms of a government that was disastrously muddled in its efforts to manage the economy. Smith volunteered to appear on Newsnight in the hope of representing the U-turn as good news for everyone, although she knew this would expose her to being grilled by the merciless Jeremy Paxman, whose victims include the likes of Michael Howard, William Hague and Tony Blair. Smith seemed quite unable to have memorised the kind of transparent evasions which are commonly used by politicians when they are in such straits. Not at all the super-cool informed minister, she fumbled her way through, allowing Paxman to ask at one point: “Is this some sort of joke?” and at another: “You ever think you are incompetent?” Which in one sense helped Smith as it diverted some of the Tories’ anger onto Smith’s boss George Osborne who was taking a relaxed dinner at Number Eleven while she faced Paxman at his most rampant.
Such are the perils of a minister’s job it is often necessary for them to be ‘briefed’ before explaining away some embarrassing facts. A master practitioner of this art was Damian McBride, one of Gordon Brown’s most aggressive spin doctors, who recalls a session to prepare the new Prime Minister by shouting abuse at him in a private room at the Treasury: “Blood on your hands…!”; “You’re a murderer…!”; and, in summary: “Sod off you Scottish git!”. This degrading but typical episode is illustrative only of the brutal cynicism of capitalism and the demands of its politics. In any case, would it have helped Smith if she had been subjected to the same preparation? We might all have our own ideas about the style of the abuse she deserved, except that that would be no less futile than McBride’s sessions with Brown. And then there is the fact that Smith has presented herself as one Baby who could be pretty tough. At university her interests were not politics but “drinking and dancing with the best of them”. She expels any tensions playing badminton, swearing or “turning the air blue” as one opponent put it. She tells us that as a minister “I focus very hard on the job in hand,” which in her case includes child poverty, the size of which is testified by many published facts and figures. The Department for Communities and Local Government recently stated that there are still more than two million children living in what is officially termed as poverty, with a 14% rise to over 50 thousand in households officially accepted as homeless – the highest since 1998. There is no sign that this situation is about to get any less desperate but Smith is not impressed: there is, she says trendily, “no Plan B, certainly not” because “we know Plan A is working.”
Paxman’s job gives him an opportunity at times to rile us with his exposure of the deceptions and diversions of capitalism’s political leaders. Smith’s job is to lie her way through the system’s implacable misery and waste, even if at the cost of her humiliation. Neither of them is interested in a proper response to this – a valid, ready method of so changing society as to leave the politicians and preening media stars to a disreputable past.