DAVID CAMERON is desperate to inject more vim, vigour and downright youthfulness into the Conservative Party. But over in the Lib-Dem corner sits an ambitious young Scot who many pundits reckon is already holding all the cards.
Jo Swinson (26) became the House of Commons’s youngest incumbent when she comfortably secured East Dunbartonshire from Labour in last year’s General Election
And since that heady night of celebrations, her star has remained very much in the ascendant.Anointed Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland after Menzies Campbell’s coronation as Liberal Democrat leader, Jo admits she’s revelling in her work.
And that’s whether she’s fighting the corner of her constituents or crossing swords with Westminster’s infamous “Big Beasts.”
“I’m absolutely loving it,” she smiles enthusiastically. “It’s been a year of a lot of new experiences.
“First in was going down to the parliament, getting out and about in my constituency meeting local groups and businesses and dealing with people’s problems.”
“Then I was appointed the Culture Media and Sport spokesperson and just last month, of course, I was given the Secretary of State brief, so again I was having to sit in on shadow cabinet meetings and speak to the front bench at Scottish Questions.”
Popping a question at Tony Blair and other Commons big hitters is something most voters would envy. But Jo, who was educated at Douglas Academy in Milngavie, has always been more of a political animal than most.
“I’ve been interested in politics since we had a mock parliamentary debate at school,” she explains.
The political seed planted, academic success followed with a first class degree in marketing from London School of Economics.
During her years there she became vice-chair of the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students’ body and launched a passionate campaign to scrap tuition fees.By 2001′s General Election she was going head-to-head with John Prescott for his Hull East seat.
“It was incredibly good experience,” said Jo, who was then working as PR and marketing manager for a Yorkshire radio station. “I realised I’d a real passion for politics and I began to ask myself why I was only doing it in my spare time, because it was what I really cared about.”
Jo admits that, like the first day of any new job, she was nervous when she took up her position at Westminster last May. But she soon felt right at home.
“The Chamber in the Commons is a quite cosy environment,” she says. “But it’s quite daunting at Prime Minister’s Questions when it’s full to the rafters and everybody is shouting and screaming. You just take a deep breath and get on with it.”
Momentarily leaving Tony Blair lost for words with her first question undoubtedly helped.
“I asked him whether it was time to dispense with the Punch and Judy style of Prime Minister’s Questions,” smiles Jo. “He was stumped for about 10 seconds and kind of agreed with me so I thought that was a result.
“He’s merciless if you show any cracks. I’d seen him make mincemeat out of people in the past and I was determined I didn’t want that to happen to me!” And she adds, “No-one in particular has been particularly beastly to me. If you’re prepared and ask sensible questions you’ll be judged on your merits. There’s certainly curiosity as to how I’ve ended up in Parliament at my age. But generally I find they treat me with respect and I respect them, and that’s the way it works.”
In fact, it was negotiating her way round the labyrinth-like Houses of Parliament that initially proved one of the hardest parts of her job.
“I was continually getting lost in my first few weeks and still do occasionally,” admits Jo. “I took a few of my constituents down recently and we ended up all over the building and couldn’t find the way out. It was so embarrassing – I eventually had to ask a policeman for help.”
Learning to schedule time off for herself also proved tough.
“The first full day I had off after the General Election was July 9 to be a bridesmaid at my sister Nicola’s wedding!”
Jo is still single, but she loves salsa dancing and hiking and they’ve helped take her mind off politics.
“You see a lot of MPs who enter Westminster and a year later they’ve ballooned in size,” reveals Jo. “So I’m keen on exercising, whether it’s going to the gym, salsa dancing or hiking up Mount Snowdon as I did at New Year. My flatmate in London, Rhiannon, is my best friend from university so she keeps me grounded. She’s interested in current affairs but not a real political animal so I can just sit down with her and unwind, have a cup of tea and find out about her love life or whatever, which is great.”
Which just leaves one more question to ask. Does she have an ambition to be leader one day, I wonder?
“It’s not something I’m attracted to,” says Jo flatly. “I really want to be a good MP for East Dunbartonshire. And I definitely want to get stuck in to my Shadow Secretary role. But whether or not I’m elected again in three or four years depends on the voters. Obviously if they do, I’d be interested in due course in playing a role in the Liberal Democrats that makes the best use of my talents.”
Spoken like a true politician.