Jacqui Smith doesn’t dance around as she reveals her battle with the menopause in high office

Jacqui Smith will sweep down the Strictly staircase tonight in a big swishy skirt, to the strains of Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.

If she glides it’s because Anton’s been working on her posture. 

‘Overall, he says it is quite good, but there’s been a fair bit of him saying ‘stand up straight’ and, frankly, ‘stick your tits out’,’ explains Jacqui, 57.

Anton! This woman was our first ever female Home Secretary. Is such word choice appropriate?

Jacqui Smith (pictured) will sweep down the Strictly staircase tonight in a big swishy skirt, to the strains of Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life

‘In the context of dance, entirely appropriate, yes,’ she says, in much the same firm manner she must have used with the head of counter-terrorism, once.

Of course, Anton Du Beke has vast experience dealing with politicians and their, erm, posture. 

He famously had Ann Widdecombe in his arms a few years back, and hasn’t been coy about making comparisons.

‘I’m not showing off, but he has said to me: ‘I don’t feel the need to fire you out of a cannon or to throw you across the floor. 

‘We don’t need to do those things, yet,’ says Jacqui. ‘So that feels like praise, actually, that we can do proper dancing.’

Has there been sisterly advice from Ann? ‘I did do a radio thing the other day and she was on before and she did say she thought Anton was the one who got all the duffers. 

‘So thanks, Ann! But then she also said she thought I might get through a few weeks, so I thought that was sisterly support.’

Strictly veteran Ed ‘Gangnam Style’ Balls has told her she needs to make sure it comes across that she is taking the experience seriously. 

Meanwhile, her former boss Gordon Brown — he was Prime Minister to her Home Secretary — has also been adding his tuppenceworth, in a very Gordon Brown way.

‘Yes, he said that he knew I would work hard,’ she says, giving a little grimace.

Is that code for ‘she will be rubbish, but a trier’?

‘Yes, I think so. It is a very Gordon thing to say.’

So where to begin with the most senior former politician (Ed Balls only made Shadow Chancellor while Ann Widdecombe was Minister for Prisons) ever to place herself in the Strictly spotlight?

Anton's been working on her posture. 'There's been a fair bit of him saying 'stand up straight' and, frankly, 'stick your tits out',' explains Jacqui, 57 (pictured together)

Anton’s been working on her posture. ‘There’s been a fair bit of him saying ‘stand up straight’ and, frankly, ‘stick your tits out’,’ explains Jacqui, 57 (pictured together)

Actually our chat is quite the rollercoaster and surprisingly revealing. Conversation lurches from fake tan (she’s never had a spray tan, but it is imminent, and, yes, she’s terrified), to her divorce (she and her husband Richard announced their split in January), to the menopause (yes, she was going through it at the same time she was Home Secretary).

She’s open and funny and — who knew? — there are hints of a personality there. She’s even willing to talk about the end of her career. 

Whether or not you think she was a good Home Secretary, the sad reality is most don’t remember what she did, only how it ended.

It strikes me that it won’t matter a jot if she falls flat on her face in public on the Strictly dance floor, because she has already done that, for real.

She came a cropper in 2009 after two years in the job, amid the expenses scandal and, yes, there was unthinkably bad footwork involved.

Perhaps most seriously there was a row about whether she should have claimed her sister’s house — where she stayed when in London for work — was her primary residence.

Lingering longer in public memory is the more lurid expenses-related scandal when it emerged that she had — erroneously, she always insisted — claimed two pay-per-view porn films on her expenses.

Her husband had watched them, but she was ultimately responsible for her own expenses submissions. Career over.

How does she feel about it now? ‘I think, I mean, obviously, I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish I’d acted differently, but I had a very fortunate and very successful political career for 13 years . . . ‘

She starts to talk about how, in these times, so many people are going through so much, ‘so I would be the last person to say I’ve had a tough time’.

She says she knew it was curtains immediately — saying to her husband ‘I will have to resign’ — but she didn’t immediately. Why not?

‘The Prime Minister didn’t want me to. 

‘He was very supportive of me and I felt like I still had a job to do and I carried on doing it for as long as I could, up to the point when, actually, my family needed me more than the job needed me, and that’s the point at which I resigned.’

It was a professional disaster, but a crisis point for her family too, presumably?

‘Yes it was. I wanted to support them but also they weren’t in a position to support me, and I’d never have been able to do that job without their support.’

Some would find it hard to stay in a marriage if their husband’s porn viewing had led to the downfall of an entire career. 

How could she not have blamed him? She insists she didn’t — admitting she didn’t want her marriage to end. He was the one who eventually walked. 

‘I mean, yes, we had some words, but ultimately we were both responsible for filling in the forms that we messed up.

‘We shared the responsibility. We shared the good times, the bad times and we continue to share lots of things about our lives now, even though we are living separately.

‘We have two lovely boys and we’ve shared a lot of previous adventures together and we are taking different paths, but we’ll probably always love each other and want to support each other, and that’s what we are doing. He is supporting me on Strictly.’

It’s actually their wedding anniversary today. ‘We would have been married for 33 years.’

She admits one of her biggest challenges currently is assessing how much to reveal — personality or otherwise — to the next set of voters she faces.

‘With the dress, I’m going to put myself in the hands of the experts. I know my skirt this week is quite long, but who knows how short I’ll go. I’ll leave it to them to make me look good.’

And how much to flaunt emotionally? ‘Well, that’s difficult. A lot of the time I spent as Home Secretary was about closing in your emotions and if you were acting at all, it was as a serious, sensible person.’

Her husband Richard Timney (she never took his name) gave up his career to stay at home ('he sacrificed everything, yes') and later worked as her aide (pictured together)

Her husband Richard Timney (she never took his name) gave up his career to stay at home (‘he sacrificed everything, yes’) and later worked as her aide (pictured together)

Oops. A bit of a stumble there, but she recovers quickly. ‘I mean, I am a serious, sensible person so I wasn’t acting but . . .’.

Timing is everything — in dance, as in politics — and the timing for her Strictly debut is certainly controversial.

One of her day jobs is as head of the University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, and this week one of its haematologists said he was disgusted at the idea of her prancing about, while the hospital is at a ‘tipping point’ due to the virus. 

‘He called it a ‘dereliction of duty’.

You can almost see her whirring into politician mode to respond. 

‘That came as a surprise because the vast majority of people I work with at the hospital are delighted that I’m doing it, and have said they are proud of me. I’m sorry if there are a few who don’t feel like that.’

She arranged a leave period from her post, she says. ‘I have a strong team around me, and a very strong deputy who is stepping up. I’ve actually taken a period of unpaid leave but I’m still in touch with the hospital daily.’

So switching between Covid and the Cha Cha? Is this normal? 

‘Being a politician for 13 years means you are quite used to going from one thing to another. It’s what makes my life happy and fulfilled.’ 

We are chatting via Zoom and she’s fresh from training for tonight’s foxtrot, wearing her jogging T-shirt and leggings (‘I was wearing gold shoes and a net skirt over my leggings today. They give you a bag of things you will need and there’s a net skirt among them. Pink’).

She looks as if she’s sitting in her hallway, because there is a grand staircase behind her. Is Anton about to tap dance down it?

‘He would! But no. I’m staying here alone, but he gets to go home to his family. We are bubbled-up, though, to allow us to train.’

The physical side of the training is going quite well. She is quite bendy, it seems, thanks to a yoga habit. 

She also runs, having surprised herself by completing a couch-to-5K programme, then a 10K. 

She decided, ‘as a lot of women do at my stage of life’, to take herself in hand once she bowed out of politics.

‘You know how it is. You don’t take care of yourself. You pile on weight. It’s a vicious circle. 

‘I suddenly realised I was going up and down stairs looking for the handrail to hold on to, and I thought: ‘I can’t be that person.’ ‘

Within a year or so of quitting, she’d gone to Weight Watchers, lost a couple of stone and felt quite marvellous.

She says she wishes she’d gone running while she was in the job but, ‘I was in a marginal constituency and when I finished my Parliamentary duties, I just felt I had to rush back to my family’.

Hang on! Sexism alert! David Cameron had young children, and he was forever out pounding the streets. 

Boris, ditto. Even Michael Gove has been spotted jogging. She shrugs an it’s-different-for-men kind of shrug.

‘David Cameron didn’t have a marginal seat. I just wasn’t one of those politicians who felt they could go running with their personal protection officers. I wish I had been now. If I could do it again, I would.’

We meander into her menopause. She was going through it while Home Secretary, she says, but was desperate no one would know. ‘You can’t reveal any weakness.’

While in the job, she was also simultaneously criticised for dressing in a frumpy fashion and for showing too much cleavage. 

She rolls her eyes. ‘Are you suggesting that a woman in politics can’t win?’ she says.

‘At the time, it wasn’t something I thought too much about. I was busy thinking about whether there was going to be a terror attack.’

She has two sons, now grown-ups, and her family life and career were always inextricably linked. Until they got too linked.

She first became interested in politics as a teenager, joined the Labour Party and was a proud feminist. 

She used to be an economics teacher but won her seat, in Redditch, in 1997, when her eldest son was a baby.

She was one of the high-profile Blair Babes, part of that generation of female politicians who were going to break through all the ceilings.

And however the history books remember her, she was a trail-blazer. Her husband was, too.

Richard Timney (she never took his name) gave up his career to stay at home (‘he sacrificed everything, yes’) and later worked as her aide.

‘We were a team,’ she says. Team Jacqui powered its way to the highest levels of Government. 

She was appointed Secretary of State for Schools in 2005. Chief Whip in 2006. By 2007, she was Home Secretary.

And then her political career, if not her marriage, came to an abrupt end. That was a more recent development.

The announcement that she and Richard had split was made in January, but, she tells me today, they ‘haven’t lived together for two years’.

She says she won’t ‘go into all the details about why the marriage ended’, but admits: ‘I was very, very sad at the time, and frankly, I didn’t want it to end, and it took a period of time, about 18 months I’d say, to come to terms with it.

‘But now I have and . . . I’m in a position where I appreciate that there are new adventures out there, new people.

It sometimes does feel that you can’t be happy again, but I’m proof that you can.’

I wonder if the weight loss and the end of her marriage were linked. ‘What, did I lose the weight then ditch the husband? No, I’m afraid they were entirely separate.’

Earlier this year, she went on holiday on her own. 

It was ‘a watershed moment. I was very anxious about it but I went on a holiday especially for singles. Actually, I had a ball. I suddenly realised I could be happy, even if I was on my own.’

But not on her own for long because, yes, she has a new boyfriend. It’s a recent thing (‘just before lockdown’) and they met through yoga as she was on her way to a class.

‘We crossed on the stairs and I thought ‘he’s nice’.’ She won’t name him and is very shy about saying too much (‘he’s not in the public eye and I don’t want to put him there’) but she seems very happy.

Is he your age? ‘Yes. If he was in his 20s it would be a very different story, wouldn’t it?’

Anyway, she has to go. Anton says she has to work a little on her shoulders. She needs to practise leaning more to the right. ‘I find that difficult,’ she quips.

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