Who is Jacqui Smith?

From a trainee teacher in Worcester to Strictly Come Dancing, David Kernohan traces the career of DfE Minister of State Jacqui Smith

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

As a graduate with a good degree in economics, the salaries available in the education system are far below what you might expect elsewhere.

As one young trainee teacher told the Guardian as far back as 1985:

If you look at the pay scales you have to laugh, I’ve got a good degree and I simply can’t see why there should be this discrepancy

It was “goodwill and enthusiasm” that, for her, explained why people in her position became teachers, not the salary. Young Jacqui Smith (JJ to her friends), now a Minister of State in the Department for Education and a newly minted member of the House of Lords, spent the mid 1980s as trainee teacher studying at Worcester College of Higher Education (now the University of Worcester).

Where it counts

Smith isn’t a tertiary education policy nerd by any stretch of the imagination. But what she brings to her role in spades is experience – the experience of running a large department, of taking legislation through parliament, of taking and implementing unpopular decisions, and dealing with a hostile press.

You only really get this after more than a decade in government roles – culminating in this case with a memorably difficult period as the UK’s first woman Home Secretary. By bringing in a minister with this level of experience, the Starmer administration suggests that there is a lot of work to be done around further and higher education and they will not shy away from it.

When you read about Jacqui Smith in the archives, you get a sense of someone with a Keir Starmer-esque determination to avoid the silliness that creeps in around the edges of politics and get on with the work. However, in popular memory (expenses scandal, Strictly, podcasting, and LBC) she exists very much in the showbusiness end of public policy. You use this as a basis to underestimate her at your peril.

An excellent prop forward

Smith started off with a degree in politics, philosophy, and economics at Hertford College, Oxford (where she was JCR President), a spell as parliamentary researcher for Labour MP Terry Davis, and a long association (ending as secretary) with the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS). She ended up teaching economics and business studies at a succession of schools and colleges for ten years, before re-entering politics as a councillor in Redditch. In 1992 she unsuccessfully contested the Mid-Worcestershire constituency, failing to overturn Eric Forth’s 14,911 Conservative majority despite campaigning support from then-leader Neil Kinnock (who admiringly noted she would make an “excellent prop forward”).

This wasn’t out of any kind of lust for power and status – indeed she noted at the time that “personal ambition is not seen as beneficial in some sections of the party.” Nonetheless, she was shortlisted (with support from Emily’s List) for the soon-to-be-abolished Dudley West for a 1994 by-election (she came fourth, behind Ian Pearson). Evidence of personal ambition or not, the Guardian published her campaign diary, as the mother of a 15 month old child and the wife of a newly redundant husband:

The local radio station interviewed me and accused me of being a career politician. It was a savage interview.

She eventually stood for the new Redditch constituency in 1997, telling the Observer that:

We need a more positive approach to what is possible with government help… we need to show that a strong economy can provide the funds.

The Independent profiled her as one of the faces of New Labour, and added that she was an Aston Villa season ticket holder, and offered a spectacular anecdote from her childhood in a piece flagging her as a possible member of the Cabinet for the year 2020:

Politically active since the age of seven, when she forced a local councilor to back down on a decision prohibiting school children from cycling on the pavement.

Fronting policies

As a young woman elected in 1997, there was no way she could avoid being in the infamous “Blair’s babes” photo (the actual headline in the Sun was, astonishingly, “Blair’s backwenchers”), but like many she was unimpressed by the idea:

When we start doing things very soon they will realise what a benefit it is to have so many women in Parliament and stop concentrating on the rather silly side of it

Alas, there are silly aspects to being a new MP in a majority – Simon Hoggart in the Guardian called out one cringeworthy early placed question, with Smith “asking”:

On the subject of energy, I commend him and his ministerial colleagues for being an especially good and reliable source of energy themselves, in the excellent work that they have undertaken since taking office

Smith was a loyal backbencher, and was given her first real chance to shine for the Government in 1998, as a member of the Commons committee for the then Teaching and Higher Education Bill, which saw Labour introduce tuition fees and student loans, and the launch of the general teaching councils. Though primarily interested in the minutiae of the schools end of the bill, she was keen to get stuck in putting the government position on tuition fees.

This experience led to her 1999 appointment as parliamentary undersecretary of state for education with particular responsibility for school standards, where she signed the regulations that commenced parts of the Act relating to the General Teaching Council for England.

This was a very junior position, fronting things like the GTC, after-school clubs, the interminable battle over grammar schools, and the measures taken to repair and refurbish school buildings – the Independent noted at the time that she would be:

judged on whether she can implement plans, placate teaching unions and front policies well in the media. She isn’t the one sitting down with Mr Blair to hammer out the next phase of the schools revolution.

Mind you, only the timely rescue of then Minister of State Estelle Morris from a Sanctuary Buildings lift prevented Smith from having to lead the first education questions faced by the newly constituted DfEE.

Moving on up

Her hard work and diligence saw her climb the parliamentary ladder. In 2001 she became a minister of state at the Department of Health (under Alan Milburn), before taking on joint roles under Patricia Hewitt as minister for industry and regions and minister for women. As a minister she consistently voted with the government, including twice in 2004 to raise tuition fees.

By 2006 she was on the move again. Tony Blair’s January reshuffle saw her move back to what had become the Department for Education and Skills, and a ministerial level role on school standards and 14-19 learners under Ruth Kelly. She had been widely tipped for a cabinet role, but instead faced rows about selection by ability, truancy, and the vetting of teachers.

Forthright (“The claim that classroom assistants are being used to replace teachers is nonsense”), political (“There is only one political boy on the block who is interested in the reintroduction of selection and he is not in the government. It is David Cameron.”), if occasionally challenged (“Ability means ability in any particular subject. Aptitude, on the other hand, means the ability to benefit from teaching in a particular subject, or demonstrating a particular capacity to succeed in that subject”), she was clearly destined for greater things once the many fires at DfE had been extinguished.

By May she had her seat at the Cabinet table as Chief Whip – diligently managing the fallout of a messy transition between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, and of the invasion of Iraq. It was Smith that managed the expulsion of serial rebel Clare Short, and called for new powers to directly discipline recalcitrant MPs like George Galloway. Smith steered the controversial Education and Inspections Act through a fractious Commons, though it was always clear that her primary responsibility was holding the party, and Blair’s legacy, together.

But I think when people start pushing for a date for that change [between Blair and Brown] we do need to take a deep breath and ask ‘well, who is it who would gain from forcing the pace to set that date?

The answer to that rhetorical question, posed to herself on the Today programme, was people who never bought into New Labour, and Tories.

Home truths

As Gordon Brown’s administration edged ever closer, Smith – despite being pegged as a Blair loyalist – was well-regarded enough to be tipped for promotion. She was particularly keen to become Education secretary. On 28 June 2007, she became the UK’s first woman Home Secretary in Brown’s first cabinet. Despite her relative inexperience, the appointment was broadly welcomed – the Evening Standard praised her ability to speak “fluent human”, while the Glasgow Herald noted her competitiveness as shown in her family’s annual Scalextric competition. On her first day in the job, she dealt with the fallout of the discovery of a car bomb in central London. On day two a jeep was driven into Glasgow Airport.

Her predecessor, John Reid, had described the Home Office as “not fit for purpose.” With the criminal justice components of the brief hived off to Jack Straw’s new Ministry of Justice, her focus was on police powers, immigration, and national security. Her career was marked by the passage of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, although a bitter and drawn-out passage saw the controversial provisions allowing for terrorist suspects to be detained for 42 days without charge dropped after a vote was lost in the House of Lords.

Also on her desk was the implementation of what in retrospect was the doomed national identity card scheme. A signature policy of the last years of the last Labour government, there were concerns about security (after the Inland Revenue mislaid the personal data of 25m people), and about demand – a variant of the card became compulsory for migrants, while trials of an optional card in Liverpool and Manchester proved unpopular. Smith delayed the roll-out until 2012, confirmed the card would be optional for UK passport holders. The first Cameron administration pulled the plug in 2010.

Landslide victory for the Glitterball Party

The parliamentary expenses scandal saw Jacqui Smith resign from Cabinet in June 2009. The ostensible reasons – the room in her sister’s house, the expenses claim that included film rentals – have passed into legend. In a long, and revealing, interview she told future podcast partner Iain Dale (they co-presented For the Many) that:

I couldn’t do [my job] because every time (after the media furore) I either avoided interviews or I did interviews and spent two thirds of the time talking about my expenses or the expense system generally.

She was also open about the challenges of being appointed a minister:

I think there should be more emphasis given to supporting ministers more generally in terms of developing their skills that the leader ought to lead big departments for example. When I became Home Secretary, I’d never run a major organisation, and 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.

Losing what was by then a small majority in Reddich in 2010 saw Smith leave politics entirely. After failing to become vice-chair of the BBC Trust, she joined KPMG before moving from consulting to broadcasting via a BBC documentary on pornography and a stint at LBC with David Mellor. A frequent guest on Good Morning Britain, she once sung “Don’t leave me this way” to Theresa May. She was also an NHS Trust Chair, led the Jo Cox Foundation, and was an honorary professor of politics at the University of Nottingham.

She re-entered the public consciousness by entering Strictly Come Dancing in 2020. Partnering Anton Du Beke, she crashed out in the first round. Her foxtrot (to “Always look on the bright side of life”) attracted some plaudits, but her samba (to “Help yourself”) failed to impress – with “pantomime villain” judge Craig Revel-Horwood being particularly rude about it.

Return to power

Despite a storied career, Smith always spoke fondly of her time at DfE. She told the Institute for Government:

I think the Department for Education at the time that I worked in it, on both occasions I worked in it, I think was the best department that I worked in. The one I felt most at home in. Not simply because of the subject area, but I think it was well led, it was well organised, it was efficient whilst also being innovative and energetic in terms of the ideas that it came up with.

So when conversations with Starmer’s team began in the week before the election she was more than eager to play a part – even noting she would be taking a pay cut to do so. She told Iain Dale:

There had been a few conversations in the week previously – people weren’t 100 per cent sure I would say yes – you’ve never seen anyone bite someone’s hand off quicker.

Smith actually missed the first three phone calls while on a family caravanning holiday near Harlech in Wales. She finally spoke to Keir Starmer on Sunday evening – straight after the football – and she was excited to accept. By 5.53am on Monday she was on a train to London, ready to reunite with her former colleague Susan Acland-Hood: now permanent secretary at DfE, she started her civil service career there alongside Smith in 1999.

Secretary of State Bridget Phillipson was another key early meeting – they both attended the same Oxford college. She will be keen to link up with others across Whitehall and Westminster (she hints that Anneliese Dodds co-appointment between DfE and the Foreign Office is significant for her role). The remainder of this week will bring Smith’s first visit as a minister (to an FE college), and the start of her induction into the House of Lords.

6 responses to “Who is Jacqui Smith?

  1. With no fewer than 412 MPs to choose from to fill ministerial positions, Starmer decided to salvage a political shipwreck necessitating the creation of yet another peerage. True, Sunak did the same for Cameron but that was at the tail end of an administration not the commencement of a new one! And of course all the objections Labour raised in opposition (lack of accountability to the Commons) apply here.

  2. If she has the capability and is able to deliver, what’s the issue? A lot of party time servers get bumped into parliament. While it might be helpful for them to fill the backbench, make up the numbers, in a big win like this after a thrashing in 2019, there is not exactly loads of talent or experience for Starmer to choose from.

  3. The appointment (and others eg Alan Milburn) does rather reinforce the view that Starmer is a Blairite.

  4. She does have a wealth of useful experience and views (as obvious from her tv and radio comments), and is not a ‘political shipwreck,’ on the contrary. I have felt uneasy about some of ‘those mistakes,’ but so be it. She was more modest about her contribution as Home Secretary than many commentators at the time, and had brought much experience into Government from her various school and teaching roles. Not least, 3 years chairing the two East London Hospital Boards has been valuable for her and to them. We are commenting on a junior, not a Cabinet post! Jacqui Smith will contribute mature experience, and constructive, practical debate to her Department and to the Lords.

  5. @Dredging the bottom already?: You’re unfair, there: every government department needs a Lords minister, and if the PM thinks Smith is the right person for the job, it’s better to appoint her than to pick someone from existing Labour peers. I’m not saying the system is a particularly good one, but until it’s reformed Labour has to work within it. We’ll see if she does turn out to the be the right person for the job, of course.

  6. @Cary Lockwood – not sure that you get the subtext to the comments. The unwritten point is that Jacque Smith is not Rebecca Long-Bailey who is one of the 412 Labour MPs. Despite his enormous majority, Starmer would rather bring back failed past ministers than risk bringing back to the Cabinet someone who might actually try and do something with the majority.

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