Profile Julia Goldsworthy Racing ahead

11 May 06
As all the parties compete for a fresh image, the LibDems have taken a lead by appointing England's youngest MP as a top Treasury spokeswoman. Vivienne Russell talked to her

12 May 2006

As all the parties compete for a fresh image, the LibDems have taken a lead by appointing England's youngest MP as a top Treasury spokeswoman. Vivienne Russell talked to her

Julia Goldsworthy has had quite a year. Twelve months ago she was just another wannabe Liberal Democrat MP with a slim but tantalising possibility of electoral victory. Now she is a prominent member of the new-look LibDem frontbench team with the daunting task of shadowing the chief secretary to the Treasury.

The media scrutiny around her lightning promotion was further intensified by her (some would say controversial) appearance on the Channel 4 reality TV show The Games, where she competed against an assortment of minor pop singers and soap stars in a series of athletic challenges.

'That was quite a week,' she laughs. 'From the Budget to curling in one jump.'

At 27, Goldsworthy is England's youngest MP and it seems she has yet to acquire the stuffier habits of some of her older colleagues. She comes down to greet me herself, offers me a drink and happily stands in line at the coffee shop before settling at one of the tables under the glass roof of the Portcullis House courtyard.

She's charming, open, friendly – all refreshing qualities in an MP – but it's hard to shake the impression that she's still rather surprised to have found herself in the mother of all Parliaments.

She wasn't expecting to win her Falmouth and Camborne seat, she admits. The Cornish constituency has become one of England's few genuine three-way marginals. A once solid Tory seat, it was claimed by Labour in 1997, who pushed the LibDems into third place and kept them there until Goldsworthy's triumph last year.

When the vacancy to fight the seat came up in 2005, Camborne born and bred Goldsworthy thought it too good an opportunity to pass up. 'I thought if I ever want to stand, it would be in my home constituency,' she says. 'And you don't really know how things are going to change in the future… I'm at an age when I don't have any dependent children, so I could afford to give it my best shot and just go down and fight it hard.'

She took the challenge seriously, giving up her job as a local authority regeneration officer to campaign in the constituency full time. Her reward was a 10% swing from Labour.

She loves the job, she says, and slots in well with the LibDems' new, young profile. 'Quite a chunk of us are under 35 and we have the youngest MPs in England, Scotland and Wales, who are all women, so I certainly don't feel like a persecuted minority because I'm a woman or because I'm young,' she says.

There has been no slow and gradual introduction to the life of an MP, Goldsworthy has had to grapple with some significant responsibilities early on. A junior health spokeswoman for a while, as well as a member of the influential public administration select committee, she hit the headlines full on when new leader Sir Menzies Campbell (whom she backed in the leadership race) appointed her to the LibDem shadow Cabinet in March.

Goldsworthy says she was 'deeply flattered' by the promotion but acknowledges what a big responsibility it is. She repeats over and over what a steep learning curve she's been on, getting to grips with an MP's workload, balancing constituency duties with parliamentary responsibilities and mastering her new portfolio.

The young MP underwent something of a baptism of fire when the Budget followed her promotion by just a couple of weeks. '[Budget day] is a big day in terms of the exposure that the party gets and the Treasury team gets, so it was important that I knew my stuff and didn't mess things up,' she says. 'Now we've got the Finance Bill coming up, and the party itself is in the middle of a spending review. There's a lot going on in a lot of different areas.'

As well as the party's spending review (established by Goldsworthy's predecessor and Campbell's leadership rival Chris Huhne), the LibDems have their ongoing tax commission, which is aiming to redraw the architecture of the taxation system along fairer and simpler lines.

Goldsworthy tends to talk in rather vague terms. The Treasury is not doing enough about the pensions crisis or personal debt problems, she says, but offers little else – which is perhaps understandable given her newness in the role and the current lack of defined party policy in this area.

But the tax credits fiasco has made her angry. 'The tax credits system is an utter, utter shambles and I don't understand how anyone in the Treasury can defend it if they have regular surgeries,' she says.

'The tax credit system should be there to support people, but the computer system has no flexibility and the principle doesn't recognise that what people who are just surviving on the margins need more than anyone else is certainty.'

She even allows herself a small dig at Revenue & Customs chief Sir David Varney ('knighted for his wonderful services to tax credits') whom she questioned while a member of the PASC. 'He obviously had no perception of the impact this has had in terms of real people. HMRC is used to taking tax from people and even though tax credits are a negative tax, the impact it has on people's lives, the benefit people get from it, is totally different from the way the taxation system works.'

Party insiders speak highly of her openness and honesty and say her tricky new portfolio is by no means beyond her abilities. 'I think it will be quite a challenge, but I think it will be a challenge for anyone,' one says. 'She knows all the issues quite well and it's great to have a young, fresh face on the Treasury team.'

Looking back at her CV, Goldsworthy's appointment to the Treasury team isn't all that surprising. Like her senior Treasury partner Vince Cable, she is a graduate of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where she studied history. It was as a researcher to then Treasury spokesman and fellow Cornwall MP Matthew Taylor that Goldsworthy first got her political feet wet. She went on to advise the party on education and economic issues before returning to Cornwall to take on her local government job.

She has a keen interest in exercise, particularly rowing. She is president of the All-Party Rowing Group and also enjoys gig rowing (large boats on the sea) back in Cornwall. It also explains her appearance on The Games (she came an impressive second), which she agreed to do to raise money for Cornwall Air Ambulance and to try to raise awareness about active lifestyles.

'At the time I took it on I was part of the health team… so I thought I'd put my money where my mouth is. It's all very well for politicians to sit on the green benches with ever-expanding waistlines telling people they need to get more exercise – why not do it yourself?' she says.

She has no regrets about doing the programme, even if her decision did draw some unwelcome comparisons with George Galloway, another MP who dipped a toe into the world of reality TV this year, as well as criticism that she was neglecting her political duties. 'I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't… In the end it was perfectly possible.'

As well as sport, she enjoys music (one of her two sisters is a musician who regularly takes her to concerts) and she's been preoccupied with moving house both in London and back in the constituency.

With a constituency to look after and a daunting brief to master, Goldsworthy is not looking too far into the future in terms of her career.

'I'm just concentrating on trying to do the jobs I've been given properly. I think there are some pretty big challenges there, so if I get through those, I think I will be very happy.'


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