Today Norwich, tomorrow the world for rising star of Tories
Fears that 27-year-old set for by-election win will be promoted too fast by Cameron
Thursday 23 July 2009
Chloe Smith, the high-flying businesswoman fighting a by-election for the Tories in Norwich North, is expected to break several parliamentary records by the end of the day.
Opinion polls make her the clear favourite to win today's poll, which resulted from the resignation of the Labour incumbent Ian Gibson, who was caught up in the expenses scandal. If elected, the 27-year-old will become the country's youngest MP, supplanting the Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson, 29. Ms Smith will also be the youngest Conservative MP for more than 30 years, and the youngest woman ever to be elected a Conservative MP. She will furthermore be the first MP with the name Chloe.
Her qualifications for high office are so obvious that friends worry she will be promoted too quickly by a Conservative leadership anxious to give itself a youthful gloss, instead of being allowed the time to get to know her way around the Commons before she assumes frontbench responsibility.
They fear she will be treated like Theresa Villiers, who was elected Tory MP for Chipping Barnet in 2005, aged 37, and promoted to the Shadow Cabinet by David Cameron after she had been in Parliament for just seven months.
"In the Cameron sense, she gets it," one Conservative who knows Ms Smith well said. "She's the ideal candidate for this kind of situation – very sharp, very young.
"I just hope that David Cameron doesn't over-promote her. The dreadful thing that I fear Cameron will do is push her straight into some role where she is out of her depth for the sake of the party's profile.
"I rated Theresa Villiers very highly, but I don't think getting on to Shadow Cabinet so quickly did her any good. And I only have to say the words 'Jacqui Smith'... It would be better for Chloe to be left on the back benches for five years."
She was propelled into national politics when a committee of Labour Party officials banned Mr Gibson, the independent-minded MP for Norwich North since 1997, from standing again as a Labour candidate.
Officially, it was punishment for allowing his daughter to live in his taxpayer-funded second home, although many people suspect that Labour's leaders seized a chance to rid themselves of a constant critic of government policy.
Mr Gibson's decision to quit the Commons at once, rather than cling on as a lame duck MP, meant that instead of fighting the seat at a general election, with only an outside chance of winning, Ms Smith has been plunged into a by-election which she is almost certain to win. Voters go to the polls today, and the result will be announced tomorrow.
She fought the campaign on the strength of her local connections, cautiously playing down her political experience because of the anti-politician mood created by the scandal of MPs' expenses. Between school and university she worked for the Norfolk MP Gillian Shephard, a former education secretary, whom she describes as her "mentor".
She has also been working with Conservative Central Office, passing on her business experience working with Deloitte's, one of the world's biggest consultancy firms.
A Tory leaflet describing her as a "Norfolk girl through and through" led to one of those strange arguments that occasionally blow up at by-elections, with the independent candidate Craig Murray, celebrated for speaking up for human rights when he was UK ambassador in Uzbekistan, demanding to know where she was born, because he suspected it was not in Norfolk.
Actually, she was born in Ashford, Kent. Her parents moved to Stoke Ferry, Norfolk, when she was three, so the "Norfolk girl" tag is accurate enough. She went to a comprehensive school in Swaffham – a Norfolk town about 30 miles from Norwich, where she is now a school governor – and then on to York University, where she got a first in English literature. She lives in central Norwich, just outside the Norwich North constituency.
It is rare for a woman to become a Tory MP under the age of 40, let alone under 30, but there have been some notable exceptions, including Margaret Thatcher, who was 33 when she took Finchley in 1959. Justine Greening, aged 40, is currently the youngest woman on the Tory benches.
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