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.