This was no car crash. Chloe Smith will go far.

My Twitter stream today was full of stuff about how Chloe Smith had been savaged and humiliated by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and how cowardly it was for George Osborne to send in a wee lassie to defend his volte-face on fuel tax. The general consensus seemed to be that the interview was a disaster which left Miss Smith looking very silly.

It seems that I, along with the Guardian’s Michael White, am part of a very small minority who think that Chloe Smith acquitted herself well.

I didn’t see a car crash. When I watched the interview I found Miss Smith impressive; almost frighteningly so. The policy was, indeed, a complete cock-up. The government did a flip, seemingly in response to opposition and media pressure, postponing a fuel tax without giving an explanation as to how it intends to fund the resulting shortfall in revenue. Furthermore, it seems that most government MPs and even some ministers didn’t find out about the change until it was announced publicly.

Any government minister interviewed after that was going get a tough time. Chloe Smith was asked lots of questions she couldn’t answer and most of the stuff she said during the interview didn’t make sense. That wasn’t her fault; it was unlikely to make sense because the fuel duty postponement was hastily made policy-on-the-hoof. But her demeanour was calm and measured throughout. At no point did she get flustered or stumble over her words. Look at the video closely; not one bead of sweat or nervous tick. The only sign that she was feeling at all uncomfortable was a slight cough in the middle of the interview.

Daniel Knowles likens her performance to that of the hapless Ben Swaine in The Thick of It. He couldn’t be more wrong. Ben Swaine’s interview is funny because he gets flustered, mixes up his words and develops all sorts of nervous twitches. There was none of that from Chloe Smith.

That is what I found impressive. At the age of 30, Chloe Smith has mastered the ability to defend something she knows is a complete mess, without letting her doubts and disbelief shine through the cracks. That is something I never achieved in my entire corporate career.

Sure, I could bullshit along with the best of them, by which I mean exaggeration, spinning the truth, selective use of data and the bigging up of small achievements. All of that is essential to success in most organisations. What I found really difficult, though, was defending something which I knew to be complete rubbish. Actually, on occasion, I was asked to do more than just defend. Sometimes corporate roles require us to enthusiastically advocate things that we know to be illogical, poorly thought out or even morally wrong.

And I was rubbish at it. I tried manfully but something would always give me away. It wasn’t always the same thing. Sometimes I would go very hot and sweat, sometimes I would go very cold and break out in goose pimples. On other occasions I would find myself making strange involuntary facial expressions or telling inappropriate jokes to try to calm myself down, which, of course, made things worse. I just couldn’t stand up and promote something I knew would be of no benefit to anyone in the organisation, or, worse, would be counterproductive, while still retaining my composure. I could fudge round things and spin stories with the best of them but, when I thought something was an out-and-out crock of shit, there was nothing I could do to disguise what I really thought. My true feelings would always leak out somewhere.

So I’m actually a little envious of Chloe Smith. I’d like to be able to do a bit of what she does. It’s handy, in some circumstances, to be able to talk utter rubbish and defend the indefensible while looking like you mean it. It’s a skill that is extremely useful in the corporate world and almost essential in politics.

A famous saying, attributed to French dramatist Jean Giraudoux, goes:

The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

Based on her performance on Tuesday night, Chloe Smith has made a good start.

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11 Responses to This was no car crash. Chloe Smith will go far.

  1. Pingback: This was no car crash. Chloe Smith will go far. - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. To an extent I agree with you though not with your conclusions. Yes, her stoicism was impressive – though her lack of emotion, of self-doubt, of hesitancy is single minded to an almost criminal extent – the complete vacuity of what she said was appalling. Not only could she not answer the questions, she failed to even engage with them.
    Clearly she was provided with an official government line and told to stick with the script but by doing so she decided not to deploy any of her own critical faculties. Politicians need to be able to talk bollocks fluently. She didn’t. She demonstrated no evidence of being able to use her own mind and engage in a conversation at all. Had she done so, it might have been inadequate but it couldn’t be worse than what we were left with. We all know she wasn’t involved in the decision to reverse the fuel duty rise ; it would have been much simply to tell the truth rather than waffle bizarrely.
    And ultimately, it showed a government which has little idea what it’s doing.

  3. Smith blithely ignored inconvenient facts, she used mealy-mouthed phrases to avoid admitting what everyone already knew, and she exhibited a determination to claim that an embarrassing climb-down was a victory. Paxo’s routine misogyny let her off the hook for her shameless performance.

    I don’t consider her silly. I consider her terrifying. She is clearly a high functioning psychopath of the type that claw their way into the CEO suite and politics. There was nothing human in her performance and therefore nothing to sympathise with.

    She will, of course, be well-pleased with her night’s work. Osborne now owes her big time, so a promotion is probably on the cards.

  4. Slightly different take by me here at – agree with much of what NorthBriton45 posted in the first comment. What surprised me was there was a suitable alternative choice that the Conservatives did not choose. (See link)

  5. Vince Lammas says:

    I saw the interview when it was broadcast without having seen any news all day. I didn’t know the background to the badly-communicated, late-in-the-day decision-making. It seems other ministers were sent out to argue for the government position before learning (later) of the reversal of planned tax rises.

    Jeremy Paxman didn’t make a good job of his interrogation. In providing a sharp critique of government actions and the impact on its credibility, it would have been better to focus on repeated u-turns and reactive decision-making. To, instead, keep repeating “When were you told?” in a situation where it’s clear the interviewee isn’t going to respond is just an attempt to repeat the glory days with Michael Howard in May 1997.

    In 1997 of course, Paxman’s repeated question was a key matter about the personal culpability and actions of the politician on the rack. In this case it just seemed like boorish rudeness. Even if it seemed important to highlight the point government ministers didn’t know what was planned, there were better ways.

    At the end of the day, Ms Smith stuck to her lines and refused to respond in a manner that made it easy for Mr Paxman to cast her and the government in any worse light. On balance I think she handled reasonably well a situation with the potential to make anyone sitting in her seat look a bit hapless.

  6. Gordon Rae says:

    So your assessment of Chloe Smith is she’s hard to the point of being a borderline psychopath; and you mean it as a compliment.

  7. The amount of viciousness in some of the comments on this post is distressing. Get a grip, folks.

    From Arse to Elbow: Keeping her cool and saying exactly what she was told to – and no more – doesn’t indicate a psychopath. What it does indicate is a politician who knows where her interests lie, which in her case are in absolute loyalty to the people who have promoted her into a position for which she is nowhere near skilled or experienced enough.

    NorthBriton45: if Smith had done as you suggest and distanced herself from the earlier decision to go ahead with the fuel duty rise, she would have dropped Osborne in it. How long do you think she would last in that post after that? What do you think her chances would have been of obtaining ANY government post after such disloyalty? It’s not Smith who is showing no evidence of a brain. It’s you.

    Puffles, I agree with much of what you’ve written. She looked like a rabbit in the headlights to me – and that explains the apparent inhumanity and vacuousness of her replies. Yes, there were other things she could have said without departing from the party line, but she probably didn’t think of them. A more experienced politician would no doubt have handled this much better. I think she did about as well as could be expected, really.

    • Frances, I deliberately said “high-functioning psychopath” because she displays precisely those traits. Not a vacant stare or an casual attitude to axes, but a lack of remorse, shallow affect and a singular inability to be embarrassed by her own performance (i.e. a lack of self-awareness). Psychopathy is not a binary state but a spectrum, and there is a wealth of academic evidence that adaptive psychopathy (personality defects rather than anti-social behaviour) is more common among “successful” people than the norm.

      This is the same inhumane (I use that word deliberately) attitude that was exhibited by many CEOs and bankers over recent decades. We really should not be applauding its reappearance now. Robotically reiterating a patently absurd “line” is not a indicator of her loyalty so much as her willingness to sacrifice credibility for advancement. The “only following orders” defence does not have an inspiring track record.

  8. Christopher Wright says:

    Jean Giraudoux is clearly Tony Blair’s hero! He absolutely mastered false sincerity – I take my hat off to him for that.

    Someone should tell Smith that a little honesty goes a long way and that she appeared totally vacuous. She could have said, look, these things are difficult to pin down 100 percent day to day and things change but we feel we have improved the overall outcome and it’s better to get it right second time round than not at all, etc.

    Instead, she made herself look totally ridiculous. But she is young and hopefully in a year or so she’ll improve. Right now she is what she is.
    A quota filler in a skirt!

  9. Dipper says:

    Delaying the fuel duty means the September inflation figure is lower than it would otherwise be, and this is the “fixing” that is used to determine the Pension increases and a few other increases. I don’t know how the numbers balance, hence whether the fuel duty is paid for fully by pensioners. Readers might like to consider for themselves any parallels with what Barclay’s did on their Libor fixings.

  10. Jan -London says:

    Chloe Smith certainly is a weird one even by Tory standards. I saw her in a welfare reform debate and she kept repeating the same line over and over again. She appeared to be totally incapable of understanding what was being said to her or of developing her argument I was so baffled by her I began asking people if the had seen this odd Tory MP. Lo and Behold she turns up on Newsnight. I can only assume that she agreed to appear out of a complete lack of self awareness. or awareness of anything else come to that – as the Paxman interview clearly shows

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