“The nice thing about being a private citizen is not having to talk about what I’m doing.” When questioned about her life today, former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s reaction is sharp, curt and well-practised. Expenses, ID cards and furore over drug classification may have tarnished her years in office, and are off-limits now. But surely, she has got a lot to say? After all, she was the first female Home Secretary and, after Margarets Thatcher and Beckett, the third woman to hold one of the Great Offices of State.
Despite her obvious reluctance to discuss certain topics, Smith is optimistic about life after politics. As well as the mandatory reference to spending time with kids, former teacher and Smith, labelled as one of the “Blair babes” in the early years of New Labour, has no intention of returning to either career. Instead, she’s managing her affairs surreptitiously, and apparently, very happily.
Smith is refreshingly frank about the recent election and losing her seat in Redditch to her Tory rival, Karen Lumley. Yet she remains positive about the Labour party of the future:“I would have been happy with many of the Labour leadership candidates,” continues Smith. Like the majority of her peers (whether they admit it publicly or not), she supported David Miliband. Of the only female of the five candidates, Diane Abbott, she lacked “the experience or loyalty” necessary for effective leadership. Despite where she stood pre-leadership vote, Smith praises Ed Miliband generously, not least for his “fantastic” performance at Prime Minister’s Questions so far.
What about the Coalition? She is as scathing as any former Labour minister of the present government: “it’s a bit weird.” Smith dismisses their economic policies as based on “lies,” pointing to the Red Book for evidence that borrowing figures are distorted. According to Smith, their policies are fallacious, their real motivation behind budget cuts being to reduce the size of the state.
She continues: “Nick Clegg misunderstands why people voted Lib Dem,” citing the Deputy Prime Minister as the politician who will be hit hardest if the Coalition fails. Smith, a famously Blairite and centrist member of the Labour party, asserts: “you can’t form a government from the edges of a spectrum: you need to find the centre-ground.” But despite these criticisms, there is no bitterness from Smith, who seems to have well and truly moved on from petty party politics.
Her judgements on the state of politics today are scarily reminiscent of the Oxford scenario. A former JCR President of Hertford College, OULC hack, and OUSU candidate, Smith is a reminder of far too many ebullient Politics students. Can she draw some then-and-now parallels, between student politics and the real world? She pauses. “There are elements that are similar.” But huge differences exist too. Despite being affiliated with their Oxford caucus, Jacqui never stood as a Labour party candidate for any student elections: her platform was individual, rather than with slate or party.
The only similarity seems to be the campaigns that she fought in both periods of her life, although admittedly the Oxford chapters were far less brutal. Especially, that is, compared with the competitive 2010 campaign. The Oxford Union is also a point of contention. Smith, along with the entirety of the Labour Club at the time, boycotted the institution: “We felt it got mistaken for real representation.” Instead, though, her decision to run for an OUSU position did not pay off. She laughs about it now.
Her gender did not always make a different, she insists. As a backbench MP, and even as a Minister for the Department of Health, those within parliamentary circles treated her with respect. It was as her profile grew – becoming Chief Whip in 2006 and Home Secretary in 2007 – that her gender really had an impact. “It made me much more high profile than being Home Secretary normally would.”
Along with the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, Harriet Harman, Smith was suddenly one of the most powerful women in the country. Suddenly, her every move was under deep media and political scrutiny.Accordingly, she met increasing amounts of commentary and criticism – a speeding ticket and the revelations about expenses claims (she was forced to apologise in 2009 after claims were made for TV package and two “adult” films) – meant that Smith was more susceptible than ever to denigration, and easier to shoot down. At the time, journalist Andrew Marr asked, “This looks a bit like final straw time for her, doesn’t it?” Given that his criticism was among the more diplomatic, it’s easy to see how Smith chooses her words, referring to ‘attacks’ made when she was in the spotlight.
But every cloud has a silver lining. Bonds formed with other female MPs, and Harriet Harman is clearly an old friend: “She was one of the inspirational people who persuaded me to run.” Both saw their appearances and fashion sense torn to pieces in the media, something that Nick Clegg and William Hague, their latest successors, will probably never experience.
The fact that Smith’s colleagues never picked her out for her gender, but the tabloids did, shows that even if Westminster is open to women in politics, populist attitudes haven’t moved on. Smith ends the interview on this rather dismal conclusion. But why would she be bitter? She’s a private citizen, and doesn’t have to talk about her life any more.