Mark Harris

Ann Widdecombe When Ann Widdecombe hits town, grown men run shrieking for cover. But is the MP, author and TV personality really the right-wing demon she appears? Mark Harris packs a crash helmet and braves the storm.

PWiddecombe slams pink weddings! MP for Maidstone and The Weald claims common ground with UKIP! That an interview with Ann Widdecombe should provide controversial sound-bites is about as certain as her topping a poll of the nation’s worst haircuts. But surprisingly, she only just scraped in at number ten – something she would have loved to have done at the last General Election, if her chances of leading the Conservatives hadn’t been scuppered by what she referred to as a ‘little band of backbiters’.

In between TV interviews on the recent election Super Thursday, Widdecombe professes to be ‘enjoying the break’ from the front benches. She’s been keeping busy with constituency work, caring for her elderly mother, writing a series of novels and, of course, appearing on TV shows from Celebrity Fit Club to Basil Brush (her personal favourite).

But when I note that her forthcoming appearance at the Theatre Royal coincides with Brighton & Hove’s unveiling of the country’s first gay wedding waiting list, the fire-brand of old emerges. “My view is that marriage should be retained as a unique institution and that is as it is currently defined in a law, between a man and a woman,” she states primly.

I can’t help wondering whether the staunch Catholic and old school Tory is expecting a warm reception in our famously liberal city. “I’ve found that no matter where I’ve been, audiences have been extremely warm. They wouldn’t pay to come out if they weren’t going to enjoy themselves.” Nothing to do with wanting to see the hair-do, then.

Turning to politics, where it seems that some of the UK Independence Party’s policies aren’t miles away from opinions that Widdecombe herself has expressed in the past. She disagrees. “The only common ground that there is with UKIP, and there’s not much, is that we’re extremely wary about any further integration into Europe. UKIP are taking votes away from the Conservatives, which means that they’re keeping Labour in. It’s completely counter-productive.”

But to write off Widdecombe as a blue-rinse reactionary would be a big mistake. She’s vehemently anti-hunting, an exponent of prison reform and a critic of medical vivisection: “I’m not an extremist, I’m not a vegetarian, I’m not someone who believes that animals have equal rights to humans. But I do believe that we have a duty of care to animals.”

Back in 1997, Widdecombe was pivotal in keeping Michael Howard from taking over the reins of the Conservative party by declaring that there was ‘something of the night’ about him. She also said, “I intend to hurt him politically and wreck his chance of leadership.” Seven years later, does she feel that she’s failed? Her opinion on Howard is terse but to the point: “There’s no doubt at all that compared to a year ago, things are vastly improved and that’s got to be down to him.”

Does she ever regret not standing for leadership of the party in 2001? “I wanted to stand and I never, never concealed that,” she says, “I was disappointed that I couldn’t but the support simply wasn’t here at Westminster, despite massive support in the country.” Since resigning from the Shadow front bench, Ann Widdecombe has hardly been off our TV screens – or bookshelves. Her first novel, The Clematis Tree, was published in 2000 to mixed reviews, including one from Ruth Rendell that suggested there was ‘something of the Sunday afternoon’ about Widdecombe.

She’s also making a splash with her new agony aunt column in The Guardian, Buck Up! “It does take a rather bracing attitude,” she admits, “But amazingly, people have actually said that it’s helped.” Reading a recent column, it struck me that Widdecombe has been following her own counsel: ‘Do what is right for you and stop worrying about what everyone else might think’ or ‘Be square and rejoice’. But perhaps the most significant advice could have been aimed at a certain party leader: “You should not be proactive in fence-mending, but remain receptive to her advances if and when she makes them.”

So is Anne considering a return to frontline politics? Her voice softens for the first time as she confides, “I’m not saying that I would never, ever go back but I have to say bluntly that I don’t expect an invitation from Mr Howard to be forthcoming.” More’s the pity, Parliament is a much duller place with her on the back benches.

You can visit Ann Widdecombe's slightly strange website here.

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