Jacqui Smith: Mrs Sensible

After the attempted terror attacks of 2007, she managed to exude calm authority

Laws are like tins of food: if the housewife is sensible, she keeps a few stored in the larder for emergencies. So runs the homely wisdom of the pleasant, ordinary-sounding and deceptively clever Worcestershire mother who is Britain's first woman Home Secretary.

On Wednesday, it will be Jacqui Smith's unenviable task to try to persuade the House of Commons to extend the time that a terrorist suspect can be detained without charge to 42 days. It was not her idea, but it has fallen to her to get into on to the statute books, and if she fails, it will not just be her reputation that is damaged. Gordon Brown's authority, such as it is now, depends on his Home Secretary's ability to coax reluctant Labour MPs to fall in behind the Government.

It is an uphill task, because Ms Smith has no solid evidence that the change is necessary. There is a very long and impressive list of people insisting that it is not, including the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats, and a perilously large number of backbench Labour MPs. The case for 42 days has been dismissed by the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, as little more than "scaremongering".

In testing circumstances like these, most Home Secretaries would put on the tough-guy act, as if finding the right balance between civil liberties and public safety is a simple test of character – the tough say aye; the faint-heated say nay. But do not expect the soothing, matronly Jacqui Smith to be like that. Expect her to be soothing, agreeable, and reassuring – as if what the Government is planning is not a fundamental change in the balance of rights between the citizen and the state, but more like a little something that the Government needs to tuck away in its legislative larder, just in case.

In a revealing interview in this week's Spectator, Ms Smith repeated the words of one of her opponents on Labour's backbenches, the London MP Diane Abbott, who accused her of being "like a West Midlands housewife stockpiling the cans of salmon in case of difficulty". Far from objecting to being thus belittled, Ms Smith retorted: "Guilty, right? And I'll tell you what, I think that West Midlands housewives have probably got a better idea of what we need to do to prepare against terrorism than, I have to say, some of my colleagues potentially have."

This downbeat self-assessment served her well as she was performing the tricky task of selling government policy to the weekly meeting of Labour MPs on Monday evening. Instead of lecturing them on the assumption that ministers know best, Ms Smith chatted to them like someone with a problem she needed to share. Afterwards, in the Commons tea room, she was approached by a very senior Labour veteran who told her it was the best address he had heard at any of these meetings in more than 20 years. Indeed, MPs were so impressed by her that journalists such as the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, began to speculate that she could be Brown's successor.

That is a slightly overheated reaction. Ms Smith is not quite in the league of potential prime ministers. She has a turf war to fight with sharp-elbowed cabinet colleagues such as Jack Straw, and does not have a solid group of personal supporters to compete with a heavyweight such as David Miliband. Her closest political allies are Hazel Blears and Caroline Flint, who are not nearly as popular with fellow MPs as she is.

Hers is the story of how Worcestershire woman came to Westminster. Born in 1962, she grew up in Malvern, but moved a few miles northwards to Redditch in 1986, to start work as a teacher after graduating from Oxford. She still lives in Redditch with her husband, Richard, and sons James and Michael. She taught business studies at one local high school, and became head of economics at another. Her pleasures are not exotic. She has a season ticket to Aston Villa, and goes with her family on caravaning holidays in Norfolk.

Ms Smith was one of that legion of Labour women known as Blair's Babes who entered the Commons in the landslide of 1997, though she continued to be Blairite for longer than the average "babe", standing by the ex-prime minister until the very end. Her rise through government ranks began in 1999 when, aged only 37, she was appointed a junior education minister. She worked her way through the Health department, as minister for social services, and the Department for Trade and Industry, and went back to Education as schools minister in 2005.

In May 2006, as Tony Blair's premiership approached its end game, he needed someone completely trustworthy to be his last chief whip, so he sent for Jacqui Smith. She held the job for 13 months, and boasts that in that time she never lost a vote in the Commons. Whether she can hold to that record beyond Wednesday is yet to be decided, but one advantage she brings to that knife-edge vote is that, unlike any other Home Secretary in recent memory, she has reached her high office without making serious enemies on the way.

One person you might think on hostile terms with her is the Reading MP Martin Salter, who was her parliamentary secretary when she was Schools minister and the Government was trying to steer through a proposal to make England's state schools more independent – against vigorous opposition from Labour's backbenches.

At a critical moment, in December 2005, Mr Salter resigned, saying he refused to be part of a "government operation". The next time his former boss came under heavy political pressure, two years later, when she was in open conflict with the Police Federation over pay, Mr Salter was again numbered among her critics. A lot of ministers would have taken the breach as a personal betrayal, but Ms Smith and her former aide remained on good terms, and he is now one of her keenest admirers.

"She does human, she does human really well," he enthused. "She doesn't even have to think about it. She has this manner that is entirely convincing. And she is fiercely intelligent, but able to put an argument in such a way that her sincerity comes through. She is completely at ease within herself."

Ms Smith needs that human touch just to stay in Parliament. Her Redditch constituency is not part of the Labour heartland, despite its proximity to Birmingham. If the seat had existed on its present boundaries before 1992, it would been held by the Tories, who recaptured control of Redditch council last month. In the 2001 general election, Ms Smith saw her majority fall below 2,500, making it one of Labour's most marginal seats. The general pattern in 2005 across the country was that turnout fell as Labour voters stayed away from the polls, and the gap between Labour and the Conservatives closed. Not in Redditch. Turnout went up to a respectable 63 per cent; Ms Smith's majority went up to 2,716, and the net swing to the Conservatives was nil.

The only explanation seems to be her high profile as the local schoolteacher made good. She keeps up her constituency work, visiting schools and opening fetes. When the prison service announced that it was working on a new prison in the vicinity, to be called Redditch Prison, Jacqui Smith spotted that local people might not want a jail named after their town. She successfully lobbied the Justice Department to scrap the name, and organised a local ballot to choose a new name. It is to be Hewell Prison.

Before Ms Smith had had time to recover from her surprise when Gordon Brown promoted her to the post of Home Secretary – despite her relative inexperience and her Blairite past – she was put to a severe test of nerve. Two car bombs were discovered in London on her first full day in office. The next day, a Saturday, suicide bombers drove a car loaded with propane gas into the glass doors of the main terminal in Glasgow international airport.

On Monday, Jacqui Smith had to report to the Commons, and handled the difficult task of sounding as if the Government was taking swift action to beat the terrorists, without sounding alarmed. She managed, generally, to exude calm authority. But it was not that which excited the bloggers. The blogosphere came alive with talk of Ms Smith's cleavage.

She had delivered her statement in a smart white trouser suit, whose relatively low neck line was exaggerated by the camera angle. All the cameras in the House of Commons are located above head height, so every shot of a politician in the House is taken from above. It was this that engaged many people's attention. Googling the words "Jacqui Smith" and "cleavage" yesterday produced 197,000 hits. Even the staid Daily Telegraph ran a lengthy commentary on the Home Secretary's "weapons of mass distraction", which remarked that "a tight black top worn under a cream jacket was simply not garment enough to conceal twin desperados, breaking for the border".

For a modern politician, dealing with this sort of nonsense is as much a test of character as handling serious questions. Where other women ministers might have let themselves be provoked, Ms Smith made light of it. She told Jenni Murray on Woman's Hour that henceforth she was going to pay more attention to what she wore, because "funnily enough, the main thing on my mind when I got up was not: 'Is my top too low cut or not?'". But in a Daily Mirror interview later, she virtually encouraged the nation to keep the joke running. "Apparently there's a running joke on TV's Headcases that the level of the security threat in this country is determined by how high or low my top is. My husband has taken to looking at my chest every morning and saying, 'I feel safe today.' Or, 'Oh, I feel less safe.'"

She may one day regret that comment, but it gives a hint at Ms Smith's greatest political strength: she can make people feel safe. If – as many fear – Britain is overdue another terrorist outrage, the sight of Mrs Common Sense from Worcestershire moving into action may be just the soothing sight that a nervous nation will need.

A Life in Brief

Born 3 November 1962, Malvern, Worcestershire.

Family Has two sons with husband Richard J Timney.

Education BA in philosophy, politics and economics, Hertford College, Oxford; PGCE, Worcester College.

Career Spent formative years teaching economics. Elected MP for Redditch, 1997. Promoted to parliamentary undersecretary in the Department for Education and Employment. Served as a minister of state in the Department of Health. Made deputy minister for women and equality in 2003. Appointed minister of schools in 2005, then chief whip in 2006. In 2007 became the first female Home Secretary, the second youngest (after Churchill) to take the post.

She says: "To be given the job of protecting the British people, our borders, our communities, that's a pretty good job, it's a great honour."

They say: "She is fiercely intelligent, but able to put an argument in such a way that her sincerity comes through. She is completely at ease within herself." – Martin Salter, MP for Reading

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