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Profile - Sarah Teather - Perfectly informed

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16 September 2005

She's one of the smallest, youngest and arguably cleverest LibDem MPs. The party's busy new spokeswoman on local government talks to Vivienne Russell

It might be the Commons recess but Sarah Teather is still busy. It seems everyone wants a piece of the tiny, energetic politician, the Liberal Democrats' new local government spokeswoman.

Our interview has been hastily rearranged, her mobile rings twice as we talk and she admits that, even though she has some time away from the grind of Parliament, her constituency never slows down. And, of course, she has to prepare for next week's party conference.

Since she swept to victory at the Brent East by-election almost two years ago, Teather has rarely been out of the spotlight and has emerged as something of a poster child for the LibDems. Young (she turned 31 in June), female and, perhaps most importantly, the representative of a deprived inner-city London constituency, she embodies all the virtues the party is seeking to embrace as it tries to leave behind its beards-and-sandals image.

Reminders of her win adorn the walls of her spacious Commons office. The front page of The Times shows a jubilant Teather being congratulated by LibDem veteran Simon Hughes. 'Labour Poll Shock' screams a framed Evening Standard advert. The party came from third place to take the seat, a victory that has come to symbolise the high tide of disillusionment with Tony Blair's second term, particularly over the Iraq war.

But a bigger test for Teather came at the general election this May, when she proved she was more than just a flash in the pan, holding on to the seat with an increased majority and a 47.5% share of the vote, more than she had expected.

She freely admits that this year's victory was sweeter. 'I was much more emotional this year, because it was about my record. The first time it was about all sorts of complex things: a vote for the LibDems; the campaign that we'd run in the by-election; an anti-war vote; an anti-Blair vote. But this time we were campaigning on my record as a local MP and I really wanted to do the job. I'd found the job so rewarding and I'd put so much into it. I would have been devastated had I lost,' she says.

At 4ft 10in, she is stuck with the label of smallest MP but she seems relieved to pass the mantle of youngest MP on to someone else her colleague Jo Swinson is just 25 and the new LibDem intake includes three other MPs who are not yet 32. The result, she says, is a parliamentary party that is upbeat, enthusiastic, anxious for success and still buoyed by July's victory in the Cheadle by-election.

Teather's success in Brent East set something of a precedent and at this year's general election the party picked up seats in the once Labour territory of the big provincial cities, gains which, Teather predicts, will trigger a change in the party's policy and direction.

'I think we will see a shift in our policy,' she says. 'With a caucus of MPs now arguing for [urban] policy development we might see a change in the perspective of the party and I think that's quite exciting.'

The LibDems control Liverpool, Newcastle and the London boroughs of Islington and Lambeth, among others. 'It demonstrates that we're the people with the policies and the vision to get things done in the cities.'

The party is conducting a wide-ranging review of its strategic policy direction, including its tax policy. The fine detail of its local income tax proposals might have embarrassed party leader Charles Kennedy during the general election campaign, but Teather says there is no appetite for dropping the policy. 'The local income tax is a bit of a given, really,' she says. 'It's extremely popular among all of our activists and it certainly plays well on the doorstep.'

And it is when talking about the doorstep that she becomes most animated. Her Brent East constituency is both fascinating and challenging, she says, one of the most ethnically diverse areas in the country.

Teather is learning Gujarati, although is modest about her achievements to date. 'I can do basic introductions and I can ask to speak to somebody on the doorstep. I know enough to break the ice, the idea then is that people realise that their English is much better than my Gujarati,' she laughs.

Teather's hard work has been rewarded with a place on the LibDem front bench, shadowing David Miliband's local government and communities brief. She confesses to being at the bottom of a steep learning curve but colleagues speak highly of her piercing intelligence and quick mastery of any subject.

'The thing that stands out about Sarah is she's phenomenally clever,' says Bridget Harris, head of the LibDem office at the Local Government Association. 'You can't get anything by her and you only need to tell her something once. Since she's started, it's given all of us a new sense of enthusiasm.' Harris adds that, like her popular predecessor Ed Davey, Teather is easy going.

Whatever the challenges of the local government role, it brings together many of the areas she is most passionate about, especially housing, a problem she deals with constantly in her constituency.

'Housing is without doubt the number one challenge,' she says. 'If we're really serious about tackling social exclusion, if we're really serious about tackling educational attainment in cities, about public health, we absolutely have to tackle housing problems.'

She speaks feelingly of some of the particularly distressing cases she has encountered and is sharply critical of the government's approach, which, she argues, has prioritised housing aspiration ahead of housing need.

Teather pulls no punches in attacking other policy failures. The subject of capping prompts an angry outburst. She describes ministers' decision to cap the budgets of eight district councils as the most shocking and absurd thing she has yet to encounter in Parliament.

'Why on earth did the government do that? Why bother? It's taking meddling and intervention to lunatic proportions. There's no benefit for doing it. There's no benefit for the taxpayer, there's no benefit to councils,' she says.

Ten years ago, Teather could not even have imagined herself in Parliament. Politics did not feature at all in her Leicestershire upbringing (she says her parents are 'bemused' by her career) and after studying pharmacology at Cambridge she had her sights set on scientific work.

'I wanted to be a neuropharmacologist and solve the problem of learning and memory and now I'm trying to solve the mystery of local government finance. It's probably just as impossible,' she jokes.

But, bored by lab work, she abandoned her PhD for a career in science policy and a job at the Royal Society. 'I remember sending reports off and watching what happened to them and feeling immensely frustrated that all the power lies somewhere on the other side of a wall between policy and politics, and I thought that if I really want to get things done I need to be on the other side,' she says.

An 'armchair' member of the LibDems since her student days, Teather began to take a more active role in politics in her mid-20s, helping out on Susan Kramer's London mayoral campaign and serving briefly as an Islington councillor before being propelled into the Westminster limelight.

Her MP's workload leaves her with little time for relaxation and she admits to a level of dedication that makes any kind of socialising difficult.

'Before politics completely took over my life and took away any possible semblance of a social life or normal living, I used to sing in the London Symphony Chorus, which also took over my life and took away any possible semblance of a social life or normal living so there's obviously a parallel there,' she says.

Her musical talents extend to playing the piano and violin but she says she has not opened her violin case in years and has no space for a piano in her flat.

She does manage to find some time for music, though, and is a member of the Parliament choir where she sings soprano. 'It's my couple of hours of sanity in a week,' she says. Then the phone rings again and it's back to the madness.

The Liberal Democrats' conference takes place in Blackpool on September 1822

PFsep2005

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