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Last Updated: Friday, 19 March, 2004, 07:36 GMT
24 hour party person
Interview
By Jackie Storer
BBC News Online politics staff

While many young people are contemplating a night out with their mates, the UK's youngest MP is getting ready for a meeting with about 40 of her constituents.

Sarah Teather
Sarah Teather: Doesn't take life too seriously
In the life of Sarah Teather, who is just months away from her 30th birthday, Friday evening does not herald a round of drinks down the pub, a kebab on the way home or a late night viewing of Sex in the City.

Instead, the petite Brent East MP's keenness to listen to the concerns of local people, many of whom do not speak English as a first language, means her constituency surgeries run and run.

They believe their plans to scrap the council tax and replace it with a local income tax will be crucial in their battle to win over voters
"Last Friday night I think we had about 40 people in - some of them weren't from my constituency," she explains, between sips from her milkless Earl Grey tea.

"The surgery is supposed to be two hours, but it is three or four normally and Saturday mornings as well."

There is no let up over the weekend either and certainly no time for a lie in.

Pester power

Her Saturday nights are dominated by party or constituency events. Sunday mornings are for door knocking and the afternoons for catching up with e-mails.

"It does my office's head in when I write all these letters," she says, laughing - something she does quite a lot.

Now I'm pushing 30 and there comes a time when everybody's liver says: 'Okay, time to behave like a grown up'

She readily admits there has been little time for a social life since she was swept into the one-time very safe Labour seat at a much publicised by-election just six months ago.

"It's very hard to meet up with friends," she says. "I'm trying to make an effort to routinely book people in, but I have to diarise it with them, because if I don't, it doesn't happen."

So if I was her mate and called her for a swifty down the pub, what would the reaction be: "Not a chance!

Love life

"My friends are very patient, long suffering and thankfully, very persistent. They continue to pester me when I say: 'I'll get back to you on that' and they don't get offended when I plead: 'I'm really sorry but I'll have to cancel', because something has come up.

Spice Girls
Sarah Teather might be young, but she's no Spice Girl
"I particularly like to see people who are not in the party, not interested in politics. It keeps me grounded."

It seems the pace of her lifestyle has also put paid to thoughts of a boyfriend. "No time," she says abruptly. "Not currently."

But doesn't she sometimes feel like sneaking off and letting her hair down?

Stress

"I wouldn't go out and get drunk now in public - it's been a long time since I went out and did that anyway," she says.

For the first three weeks I was operating out of an old Ford Fiesta
On starting work at Westminster

"It's the kind of thing I did when I was a student, but now I'm pushing 30 and there comes a time when everybody's liver says: 'Okay, time to behave like a grown up'."

Very wise.

Despite the predictably rapturous welcome Ms Teather received for winning the Brent East seat for the Liberal Democrats, her foray into national politics did not have the most auspicious of starts.

"For the first three weeks I was operating out of an old Ford Fiesta and a kitchen in West Hampstead and storing House of Commons paper in the vegetable rack," she adds with a chuckle.

"I was inundated with letters and queries, but I didn't have an office or any staff. That was probably the most stressful thing.

"In any other job you get an office and a desk and a computer and an induction book, but here you start with a budget that you can't access for three weeks."

Mickey takers

She says it was a deliberate decision to have her main office in Brent, instead of Westminster, because "that's where I spend most of my time".

Her staff are like her, quite young "and cheeky".

"They take the piss out of me routinely," Ms Teather says giggling.

Give me the definition of a politician', and they said: 'An old fat bloke'
On speaking to school pupils

"They don't take me too seriously and I don't take myself too seriously - that's very important.

"It's a very young, lively, enthusiastic team, which is really nice. It's quite fresh."

The MP, who when we meet is dressed in a tweed suit with black collar and neat bobbed hair, says she hopes her colleagues, no matter what age, share her concern that young people are turned off by politics.

"I hope that because I'm young and female, and unfortunately that is unusual, that will encourage other people," she says.

"I really enjoy going into schools and talking about politics and being slightly different.

"I went into one GCSE class and said: 'Give me the definition of a politician', and they said: 'An old fat bloke'.

"And I said: "Do I look like an MP?' and they said, 'no', so I said: 'Well I am your MP', and they were 'wow' and it's a shock."

Fluffy jumpers

But Ms Teather, who joined the Lib Dems while still a student at St John's College, Cambridge, in 1993, says she doesn't go out of her way to "be different".

"Sometimes I come to Westminster in a leather skirt and sometimes, I wear a suit. I wear what I wear.

Sarah Teather
Ms Teather was greeted at the Commons by her fellow MPs
"I'm not trying to carve out a niche - I'm trying to do my job. Right now I have a thing for fluffy jumpers and suede skirts."

She finds the House of Commons quite a strange place. "Organisationally, everything is a nightmare and takes much longer than you might expect," she says.

"I find the fact that you don't clap quite odd. MPs bang desks instead.

"There's an awful lot to learn and get your head around."

Sleeping

She is irritated that the Commons "does not in any sense represent the diversity of the UK" and says prime minister's question time can be "childish - it's a bit puerile, feels a bit teenage".

Already a junior health spokeswoman, she does have ambitions to serve in a Lib Dem government. "There is a tendency sometimes to be happy with opposition, to take the moral high ground, to bash away at everybody else," she says.

"But if you have a very clear vision about what you want to see achieved, the only real way to do that is to get into government," she says firmly.

In those rare moments of spare time the former Macmillan Cancer Care Relief health policy advisor enjoys "sleeping" and "singing in the Parliamentary choir", which is currently rehearsing Brahms' German requiem.

So what do her parents think of having an MP daughter? "They are still recovering from the shock."

And her brothers Matthew, 26, and Andrew, 23? She pauses, and then adds: "They are quite chuffed really."




SEE ALSO:
Charlie's Tory reshuffle?
14 Oct 03  |  Politics
Teather's rapturous welcome
23 Sep 03  |  Politics
Profile: Sarah Teather MP
19 Sep 03  |  Politics
Labour MP dies
19 Jun 03  |  Politics


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