Sketch: Top marks for Osborne’s youngest apprentice
She may be straight out of primary school, as one Labour MP claimed, but ministerial prodigy Chloe Smith has done her homework.
By Alex Stevenson Follow @alex__stevenson
The Commons chamber is an unkind place. Don't let its subdued atmosphere, all oak panels and green benches, fool you into thinking this is some sort of library. It is a hostile, threatening place. Especially if you have suddenly been catapulted into government at the tender age of just 29.
This was the situation faced by new recruit Chloe Smith, the victor of the 2009 Norwich North by-election. I interviewed Osborne in some backstreet of her constituency the day before polling day, with Smith earnestly nodding in agreement as the then shadow chancellor explained why she was so promising a candidate. He was right. She was loyal. She was intelligent. Most importantly, she was a dab hand at spouting the party line as if it was a sparklingly original thought which had just occurred to her.
This may explain why it took the tiniest of reshuffles for her to be promoted to the frontbench, where repeating the same old line again and again is an essential part of the job description. As economic secretary to the Treasury she is the youngest minister in the government. Today, in Treasury questions, was her first taste of the Commons bearpit.
On the face of it, this was not set to be an easy induction. Only a few hours had passed since Britain found out the economy had grown by 0.5% in the last three months, not enough to lift the recovery out of the 'doubtful' category. Ed Balls and his hostile Labour team took every opportunity to accuse the government of complacency. The sight of the shadow chancellor incessantly waving his flat left hand from left to right, like some deranged dance move, must have been terrifying to behold. He intended to demonstrate by this odd motion that the economy is flatlining, but I have taken to imagining Balls is stroking a Cabinet minister's head as he performs this gesture.
This thought probably did not occur to Smith, but she had reason to be nervous nonetheless. Fortunately she is part of a team. If Osborne takes half as much care tending to the economy as he does to the needs of his new minister, we can be confident there won't be a double-dip recession any time soon.
The chancellor's kind, attentive treatment to Smith – a new entry at number one in the chart of ministers who resemble Harry Potter – was of the calm, reassuring kind. He did not intervene unless he felt she absolutely needed it. As a Labour MP complained that the coalition was presiding over the slowest recovery since the First World War, Osborne pointed out to Smith that this was one of the deepest recessions on record. Standing up, she said: "This has been one of the deepest recessions on record." She sat down, sitting up straight. Osborne nodded approvingly.
I sensed that Smith, who oozed the confidence of someone who has done their homework, had had an answer of her own up her sleeve anyway, but she was happy for the help. She faces extra pressure because of the manner of her entry into government. David Cameron, so the story goes, gave her a job because he thought she had an accounting background. She had worked for Deloitte, it's true – but as a consultant, not an accountant. "Never mind," the prime minister is supposed to have told her when she pointed this out. "Welcome aboard!"
More experienced colleagues who remain on the backbenches may bear a grudge following this very public mix-up. So the Tories firmly cheered her when she first stood up. The hidden hand of the whips may have had something to do with this. At least their hostility to Labour MP Fiona Mactaggart, who suggested Smith had just emerged from "primary school", was genuine. They bawled their disapproval for such a long time the Speaker had to tell them to zip it.
After Smith's first set of questions was over Smith sat down with relief. Looking to her left, she caught the eye of Liberal Democrat chief secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander. At 39, with 18 months in government, he is now a veritable veteran. "Very well done" he mouthed at her. "Thank you," she replied, a little self-consciously. The first ordeal was over.
Smith does not seem like the sort of Tory who will rebel over Europe, or maintain inappropriate relationships with 'advisers', or conduct any of the more reprehensible ministerial activities which have got her Conservative political ancestors in trouble in the past. On that basis, here was the frontbench debut of a minister who may be around for a very long time.